Zoo is a postmodern picture book written and illustrated by Anthony Browne, first published in 1992. Browne’s story is not a pleasant or easy read, but it does the job it’s meant to. This is a critique of zoos as a fun day out (for children and animals alike), and subverts a long tradition in children’s literature as zoos as an arena for carnivalesque fun.
20th century children’s books set in zoos are not hard to find. Zoos also appear frequently in art aimed at an adult audience:
PERIOD — This picture book was published in 1992, a period in which traditional 20th century zoos were starting to reconsider their raison d’être. I’m of the generation who saw that change happen in real time. My early childhood experiences include visits to absolutely horrible zoos, which hadn’t quite gone by the time I was in my late teenage years. The most confronting zoo I visited was the Tokyo Zoo, in 1995 — a concrete establishment bereft of people. I went there with my fellow exchange student peers on a Sunday afternoon exploring central Tokyo and we left in a very dispirited mood. In my hometown of Christchurch, New Zealand, I remember seeing a gorilla locked inside a cage about the size of a bedroom. He had nothing to do in there except masturbate, which he did frequently, looking visitors right in the eye. I feel he knew exactly how confronting this was. And I can’t quite fathom how adults felt it was okay to exhibit that gorilla as a spectacle in the very same environment in which talk of masturbation, let alone the spectacle of it, was utterly taboo.
DURATION — Anthony Browne’s Zoo takes place over part of a day. A day trip.
LOCATION — This fictional zoo is positioned in the middle of a busy city. Browne is clear about that — the family gets stuck in a traffic jam in order to get to this artificial wilderness.
ARENA —But even once inside the zoo, Browne’s backdrops offer us glimpses of the surrounding arena, which is completely devoid of greenery. Instead we see the least beautiful parts of humanity.
MANMADE SPACES — I’m talking about the power pylons and the tall buildings, shown to us only in silhouette, making them seem even more ominous.
NATURAL SETTINGS — The story has no natural setting at all, which is entirely the point. Although Browne’s critique of the zoo experience as Not Fun was new to picture books in 1992, there is a lengthy history of children’s storytellers subtley and not so subtley conveying the message that the country is wholesome and the city is dangerous for children, and that cities stifle childhood itself.
WEATHER — If Browne wanted to create a genuine utopia he’d have created a blue sky with plenty of greenery, but in Zoo he does the opposite. The sky is as grey as they concrete zoo inside the concrete jungle of humanity.
TECHNOLOGY CRUCIAL TO THIS PARTICULAR STORY — The zoo itself
LEVEL OF CONFLICT — What’s going on in the wider world of the story, politically, socially, environmentally…? Politically, animal rights activists were starting to gain traction and the a greater proportion of the general public was starting to think a bit more critically about how we treat animals, especially wild animals, especially endangered species. I’m confident that zoos (and circuses) will one day be no longer a thing that exist. Most zoos in the year 2020 are doing a better job of creating the illusion of nature, and some perhaps genuinely provide a decent life for some of their animals. But there’s still a lot going on behind the scenes that would shock visitors. For instance, the giraffe at our local zoo is a main exhibit, and if you turn up for the talk you’ll hear all about what he eats, how he spends his days, and he’ll come close enough for you to admire his beautiful long lashes. Left out of the child-friendly talk: how a new giraffe was murdered one night in a territory fight, because giraffes are a violent, territorial species, and one zoo ain’t big enough for two males.
THE EMOTIONAL LANDSCAPE — Here we are talking about the difference between what is real in the veridical world of the story and how a character perceives it — never exactly as it is, but rather influenced by their own preconceptions, biases, desires and personal histories. The characters in this particular story exist on a continuum between laughingly blasé (the father) and quiet, sober and concerned (the mother). The boy who narrates is noticing his parents’ reactions and, at the reflective time of retelling, seems to be making up his own about zoos. At this point he simply knows zoos are not fun. The details he tells us are centred on him, his own family and his own family’s experience of the zoo, not on the experience of the animals. The reader, however, with careful reading of the images, will see the exact ways in which this zoo is not fun: For the empathetic person, a zoo can’t be fun for humans if it’s not fun for animals.
STORY STRUCTURE OF ZOO
Unusually for Goodreads, the publishers have said nothing about this book other than:
Winner of the Kate Greenaway Medal.
The most upvoted consumer reviewers fall on a narrow spectrum between ‘I did not like this book’ and ‘I did not like this book but it’s important’.
Zoo by Anthony Browne is an especially good case study in meaningful framing. Illustrators make various use of frames — doorways, windows and arches make for naturalistic architectural divisions of a scene. Frames can be created in other ways, too, for example in the opening image below. This looks like a simple page of portraits but on a re-read you’ll notice that those boxes separate each family member from each other, and the white space between them is the psychological distance between them. This is the story of a family separated from each other by metaphorical bars and white space.
Stripes are another symbolic feature of the illustrations, most obviously in the stripy shirt worn by the father, the character most responsible for splitting the family apart.
The mother doesn’t seem to have any power in this family. She does have a voice, though her observations don’t have any impact on her husband. This is an example of the well-established female maturity principle at work, in which female characters are the people in a story with extra insight, well-developed empathy. It is rare to find a gender inversion of this parental dynamic.
The boys might as well be zoo animals themselves because they are stuck in this family, forced to do whatever the adults require of them. At times they break out and rough and tumble with each other, much like monkeys.
The action is driven by the father, who is the only one in this family who thinks a trip to the zoo would be fun. We are shown this in the car, when the father is the only one to laugh at his own joke. Browne, in turn, makes this into a joke for the reader by saying ‘everyone laughed except’ (everyone else in the car). This solipsistic father has no empathy for the desires of the rest of his family.
However, Browne knows that children in children’s stories need their own desires in order for a story to work, so the boys do have wishes of their own: They want to see the monkeys and apes, not all the other ‘boring’ animals. When they do see the large ape, this will comprise the climax. (Subverted.)
The parents have their own idea about how the day should pan out. It should be fun, dammit. Even though the boys are hungry, they are not allowed to eat until designated lunchtime. In this respect, the boys are like the animals, who must wait for their feeding time rather than hunting and eating according to their own rhythms.
Browne’s illustrations of the father emphasise his bulk, with worm’s eye views (rather, child-eye views) and in one disturbing picture he has his mouth wide open, similar to depictions of cannibalistic ogres.
The boys are depicted as monkeys. The father makes a joke about their monkey hats, and Browne has emphasised the boys’ faces to better resemble monkeys’ faces. In comparison to the gorilla, these small monkeys are helpless.
The adults’ plan: To get value for money by visiting all of the animals. Browne shows us that the father doesn’t want to pay the entry fee because he lies about the son’s age to get a cheaper price. He also doesn’t pay for a map. (I deduce that’s why they don’t have one.) The family is therefore lost within the zoo, which is not at all like a wilderness but functions more like a labyrinth, in which the family are on this path and must walk around and around until allowing themselves a psychological out. No one has forced them into this labyrinth, but as in any mythological labyrinth, there will be a Minotaur at the centre, when the main character reaches the darkest depths of his soul.
So who is the Minotaur of this zoo-labyrinth? Is it the father? I believe it’s the father AND the gorilla, who is an absolutely pitiful creature. We don’t even see the gorilla’s face, just the hunched over, completely withdrawn, pathetic figure of a magnificent wild creature with beautiful reddish fur.
Anthony Browne uses the same illustrative trick in his retelling of Hansel and Gretel, in which the stepmother EQUALS the witch. Using illustrations, Browne melds a familiar (family) characater into the supernatural, mythical character, showing the reader that mythological creatures aren’t real, sure, but are even scarier than we thought; they walk among us. They live in our homes.
The boy narrator does not experience an “Oh my, zoos are horrible! I’m never visiting a zoo again!’ kind of epiphany. It would be unbelievable, and unlike a children’s story, if he did. Joycean epiphanies happen rarely in real life, and postmodern stories reflect that. This child’s naivety is established in the opening, when he uses ‘incorrect’ grammar ‘Me and my brother were really excited’. The introduction itself is naive, written in a ‘what I did on my holiday’ kind of way, as if required by his schoolteacher. One does not become all-seeing and wise over the course of a single outing.
Instead, the boy realises that zoos are not fun, which is just the first step towards full awareness of humans’ relationship to animals, and how far humans have become removed from our natural environments, of small communities, of ready access to nature, and everything that goes with that.
In a story like this this, the reader is supposed to have more of a revelation than the naive narrator. When developmentally reader to do so, the reader picks up the double meaning of the mother’s final observation:
“I don’t think the zoo really is for animals… I think it’s for people.”
First meaning: Zoos are no good for animals. They are good only for people. Second meaning: Zoos are a type of cage for people, as well as for animals.
The illustration on the recto side of the spread encourages the second reading because now we see a close up of a gorilla not through bars, but through the archetypal storybook window frame, divided into four segments. This family is about to go home, and they talk about eating dinner, and what they will have. In a Magic Eye book kind of way, we can imagine seeing the family through that same frame, eating their burger and chips and beans — foods chosen by Browne specifically for being highly processed, removed from ‘nature’, not through the bars of a zoo, but through the equally restrictive ‘bars’ of a suburban window frame.
The final sentence shows the reader that the boy narrator has finally started to think about the ‘humanity’ of the animals. He’s just starting to look outside the concerns of his own family.
The full-page recto imagery is a wide angle shot of a zoo in silhouette, but most of the page is sky and includes the moon. This functions as an outro shot seen frequently in film — big skies and oceans are commonly used to show the main character has achieved a wider view of the story situation. (Sometimes the storyteller elevates the main character by putting them on a hill or a roof.)
This boy could go either way. He could side with his wholly unempathetic same-gender parent and become a big, strong man who laughs and cracks dad jokes and impresses his own thoughts and desires upon everyone around him, using his bulk like a wild male gorilla. Or he could forge a more modern path, using his mother as cue. The final sentence has suggested he’ll take the second path, but sometimes characters in stories have a temporary (“phantasmagoric”) epiphany then go right back to how they were before. (The Literary Impressionists were a fan of this kind of ending.)
In the 19th century, families used to visit asylums for the insane as family outings. We now call this Asylum Tourism.
Modern families would shudder at asylum tourism, which is why I think future families will, in time, shudder at zoos (and circuses), if not already.
The term ‘inciting incident’ is one of those writing words which means different things to different people. Some writers don’t think in terms of inciting incident. To others it is key to a good story beginning.
Some authors have easily identifiable inciting incidents, and one big event to set off a chain of events seems to be how they work. As one example, Ian McEwan’s novels tend to revolve around a single event, a single moment, or day. This day will change the character’s life and everyone around them.
All good stories have inciting incidents, but if you’re having trouble finding yours, that might be because they don’t look as we might expect. An inciting incident isn’t always a bomb going off.
Where to begin? Of all the questions that harass novelists and others with a story to tell, it has to be the peskiest. The question comes down to structure. Not what happened, i.e. the series of events that make a story, but the order in which those events are conveyed. Should we start with the beginning, or at the end? Or should we cherry-pick a dramatic scene from somewhere in the middle, and backtrack from there, filling in all the things that lead up to that dramatic moment, then continue to the end?
Assuming we’ve chosen to tell a story from the beginning, what beginning do we start with? Writing guides often use the term inciting incident, meaning the event or incident that propels a character or characters out of their status quo existence, igniting the plot.
But locating that inciting incident isn’t always that simple, since often there’s more than one. In fact there’s always more than one, with an inciting incident lurking behind every inciting incident, a breadcrumb trail of inciting incidents leading back to the birth of the protagonist and beyond, to her conception, and the birth of her parents, and the birth of their parents, and, finally, ultimately, by logical extension, the Creation of the Universe.
One famous story that doesn’t have another inciting incident lurking behind its inciting incident begins, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and Earth.” No back-story to that story.
But unless you’re writing the Bible (or a James Michener novel), you probably want to begin your story as close as possible to the event that sends your protagonist off on her dramatic journey—a journey of exceptional struggles and fresh opportunities.
Noting that narratologists and writers have long stressed that there are always related events prior to the start of a formal narrative, Brian Richardson concludes that “there is no ready formula for ascertaining the actual beginning of the story,” and that judgements about where a narrative begins proceeds on a case-by-case basis.
As received by the audience, the inciting incident might be barely noticeable. We might call these ‘soft inciting incidents’. We see soft inciting incidents in works such as Madame Bovary and Lost In Translation.
What is the Inciting Incident in Thelma & Louise? Depends who you ask. Most people would probably say it’s the scene where Louise shoots a man. But in his writing book Hooked, Les Egerton tells us that, for him, the inciting incident is the scene where Thelma makes the decision to go on a trip with her best friend, defying her husband for the first time ever. This happens in Thelma’s kitchen as soon as she hangs up the phone. Daryl has just told her he’s going to be working late. The audience knows he’s seeing another woman. We know something has changed in Thelma because she decides not to tell Daryl what the audience already knows: She has been invited to go on a trip with Louise. She then makes preparations to leave.
TWO TYPES OF INCITING INCIDENTS
Others have divided inciting incidents into categories. Shawn Coyne does it like this:
CAUSAL INCITING INCIDENTS
A Causal Inciting Incident is the result of an active choice—a wife leaves her husband, a man enlists in the Marines, a dentist molests a patient he’s put under anesthesia.
COINCIDENTAL INCITING INCIDENTS
A coincidental Inciting Incident is when something unexpected or random or accidental happens—a simple man wins the lottery, a woman takes the wrong suitcase at an airport, a piano falls out of a window and kills a man’s dog.
Coyne, Shawn. The Story Grid: What Good Editors Know (p. 160)
In Thelma & Louise, the Causal Inciting Incident happens in Thelma’s kitchen. The Coincidental Inciting Incident happens in the carpark of the bar.
Some people call The Coincidental Inciting Incident a ‘turning point’.
The best inciting event of this kind is one that makes your main character think she has just overcome the crisis. Louise knows she’s just overcome one crisis (she saved Thelma) but now the police will be after her.
CASE STUDY: ORDINARY PEOPLE
Sometimes an inciting incident isn’t immediately clear because an audience isn’t always aware from the start what the character’s journey is going to be. Robert Redford’s film Ordinary People tells the story of how teenager Conrad Jarrett, traumatized by the death of his brother, seeks psychiatric help. The journey into the woods — and thus the moment that kick starts it — only becomes apparent when one realizes it’s a journey towards healing.What catalyzes that journey? The first stage of the first act ends when Conrad is thrown into a new trauma by his mother trashing his breakfast before him; this in turn sparks a journey of introspection, culminating in a flashback of his brother’s death. For Conrad, it’s a choice — continue to suffer, or seek help. If the inciting incident is the what, then the flashback is clearly Conrad’s motivation for seeking help, the how that will eventually enable him to find peace. In truth, all three parts are related — as they should be — but question and answer, the root of all structure, is inherent in the crisis and climax of the act.
In this formulation an inciting incident gives us two elements. The act one crisis point poses a question: will the protagonists make a break with their old selves? And, as we’ve already noted, for the story to really kick off, the protagonist is now required to make a decision how to respond. The ‘explosion’ and the desire it creates often occur in the first act, embodied in crisis and climax. It can be useful to look at these points as the what and the how. The crisis becomes the what — “What’s the problem?” And the climax the how — “This is how I’m going to deal with it.
Into The Woods, John Yorke
Header painting: John Ritchie — An Expected Rise in Stocks
The Tale of Mr. Tod by Beatrix Potter (1912) is a child-in-jeopardy crime thriller. See my post on thrillers and also my post on secrets and scams.
Note alo, crime stories appeal disproportionately to women — for whatever reason, this is a female genre. Beatrix Potter was the perfect candidate to create such a work.
Also, if you want to see what sort of sociopathic, philosophising white man Peter Rabbit turned into, go no further than Mr. Tod — the unexpectedly dark sequel to The Tale of Peter Rabbit. Potter wrote this mindfully and opens with direct address:
I have made many books about well-behaved people. Now, for a change, I am going to make a story about two disagreeable people, called Tommy Brock and Mr. Tod.
Actually, Potter did not use the word ‘nice’. What she wrote was this:
I am quite tired of masking goody goody books about nice people.
The publishers made her change it.
I wonder if, by 1912, Potter had become weary of people’s assessment of her work. Even today, I feel Beatrix Potter is mischaracterised as a spinster who wrote cosy tales about bunnies dressed in coats. But you’d only believe that if you hadn’t actually read any of her stories. More recent made-for-TV bowdlerisations don’t help. Is the opening to Mr. Tod a note to the people who underestimate her darkness?
Nobody could call Mr. Tod “nice.” The rabbits could not bear him; they could smell him half a mile off. He was of a wandering habit and he had foxey whiskers; they never knew where he would be next.
If Potter were alive today, I can guess what she’d say to people who insist people — women in particular — write likeable characters as role models for children. I think she’d tell them where to stick their opinions.
LANGUAGE IN MR. TOD
coppice — an area of woodland in which the trees or shrubs are periodically cut back to ground level to stimulate growth and provide firewood or timber. This suggests humans are living nearby, though the animals in Beatrix Potter stories are referred to as ‘people’, so it could’ve been maintained by the animals themselves.
to cut a caper — to make a playful skipping movement (it does not mean to slice a pickle, of the sort I’ve only ever encountered at Subway sandwich restaurants)
spud — I thought it referred to potatoes, but now I realise it’s a small spade, and potatoes probably came to be called spuds after the spade used to dig them up. (Looks like no one really knows if that’s the connection — before it was a little spade it was a Nordic dagger. I imagine these were used to cut tubers up. Vikings didn’t have potatoes, however. I’m stumped!)
pig nuts — One of the more palatable wild foods. The tuber can be eaten raw and is very tasty. In flavour and consistency pignuts are something like celery heart crossed with raw hazelnut or sweet chestnut and sometimes have a spicy aftertaste of the sort you get from radishes or watercress.
flags — in this contest it means flagstone, used as flooring.
coal scuttle — a bucket-like container for holding a small, intermediate supply of coal convenient to an indoor coal-fired stove or heater.
counterpane — an old-fashioned word for a bedspread
bedstead — the framework of a bed on which the mattress and bedclothes are placed
warming-pan — A bed warmer was a common household item in countries with cold winters, especially in Europe. It consisted of a metal container, usually fitted with a handle and shaped somewhat like a modern frying pan, with a solid or finely perforated lid.
persian powder — Persian powder is a green pesticide that has been used for centuries for the biological pest extermination of household insects.
kitchen fender — Here’s a picture of one. It’s made of steel but what is it for? Looks like a guard for the stovetop.
CAST OF CHARACTERS
Tommy Brock — a vile badger who sleeps all day and is therefore considered lazy (the curse of shift workers everywhere)
Mr. Tod — a fox who likes to eat rabbits, rats etc. Sly.
Mr. Benjamin Bouncer — terrorised by Mr. Tod, old, too old for proper babysitting but there we have it. Because he is old he is the designated dolt — easily tricked by a badger carrying a bag full of his grandbabies. I mean, Brock even stops to have a chat with him.
Benjamin Bunny — Benjamin Bouncer’s son
Flopsy — married to Benjamin. She cleans when she’s had a gutsful.
The bunnies — they spend the entire story in a sack, pretty much. They’re more goods than characters.
STORY STRUCTURE OF THE TALE OF MR TOD
Potter intends two main characters: Tommy Brock and Mr Tod. These guys are nemeses. The rabbits end up functioning as viewpoint characters as well as victims (mostly viewpoint characters). But they have their parallel plot, more reminiscent of a sprawling contemporary crime TV series than of a picture book.
Fairytale elements, such as from Hansel and Gretel are utilised in this story, as well as the classic character archetypes typical of Aesop (especially the sly fox). Then there’s the Goldilocks reference, with someone breaking in to some fierce creature’s house and accidentally falling asleep in their bed. But the forest and the trickery would be at home in almost any European fairytale.
Mr Tod’s shortcoming is also his strength, as explained above:
Nobody could call Mr. Tod “nice.” The rabbits could not bear him; they could smell him half a mile off. He was of a wandering habit and he had foxey whiskers; they never knew where he would be next.
(He has ‘foxey’ whiskers because he is an actual fox, which is an interesting way of telling us that.)
I love the thumbnail character description of Tommy Brock:
Tommy Brock was a short bristly fat waddling person with a grin; he grinned all over his face. He was not nice in his habits. He ate wasp nests and frogs and worms; and he waddled about by moonlight, digging things up.
Only from the illustrations do we know for sure that Tommy Brock is a badger, though brock is a British name for a badger, so if you know that you didn’t need the illustration.
Does the badger really mean to kidnap those tasty little bunnies? I don’t think he meant to until he saw the opportunity. Remember he’s high on something potent — whatever ‘cabbage leaf’ cigar stands for. Ditto ‘seed cake’. I mean, he goes to the fox’s house, probably thinking it’s his own home. He sleeps and doesn’t move even when a fox comes into his house, probably thinking it an hallucination. He doesn’t give a shit, does he. He’s put the bunnies in the oven but forgot to turn it on. He’s off his face.
That fox isn’t off his face though. He comes home after a bad night of hunting and he’s wanting some breakfast. When he finds the badger in his bed, he only means to wake him up with a cold water surprise.
Potter was familiar with the dietary requirements of a badger:
They can eat several hundred worms each night. But being omnivorous, they will eat almost anything, from flesh and fruit to bulbs and bird eggs. … They will eat nuts, seeds and acorns along with crops like wheat and sweetcorn. Badgers are known to eat small mammals mice, rats, rabbits, frogs, toads and hedgehogs.
When Potter’s narrator tells us that badgers only occasionally eat rabbit pie and only when there’s nothing else around she is setting up a hierarchy of opposition, with the fox as the most dangerous of all.
But even the rabbits have their own conflict. It strikes me what an absolute asshat Peter Rabbit has turned into — the returned and bereft Benjamin Bunny is worried sick — as you would be — that his babies are about to be consumed, the entire lot of them. But what does Peter do? Constant deflection and circumlocution. He’s in no hurry whatsoever. In fact, Peter Rabbit almost gives one the impression that he’d like the bunnies to be eaten. That experience in Mr. McGregor’s garden ruined him for empathy.
Look at how deliberately unhurried he is. Who cares how many? Who cares how hard caterpillars kick? I mean, under the circumstances!
“Whatever is the matter, Cousin Benjamin? Is it a cat? or John Stoat Ferret?”
“No, no, no! He’s bagged my family—Tommy Brock—in a sack—have you seen him?”
“Tommy Brock? how many, Cousin Benjamin?”
“Seven, Cousin Peter, and all of them twins! Did he come this way? Please tell me quick!”
“Yes, yes; not ten minutes since … he said they were caterpillars; I did think they were kicking rather hard, for caterpillars.“
“Which way? which way has he gone, Cousin Peter?”
“He had a sack with something ‘live in it; I watched him set a mole trap. Let me use my mind, Cousin Benjamin; tell me from the beginning.” Benjamin did so.
“My Uncle Bouncer has displayed a lamentable want of discretion for his years;” said Peter reflectively, “but there are two hopeful circumstances. Your family is alive and kicking; and Tommy Brock has had refreshment. He will probably go to sleep, and keep them for breakfast.”
Ben’s plan is to chase the dude with the sack full of bunnies. This is a classic thriller chase, with near misses, hazards on the way (Mr. Tod’s house), snags (the sack has gotten caught on twigs, leaving bits of thread).
The second half of this story mainly comprises the elaborate scheme the fox gets up to — a prank, basically, designed to rouse the badger, who has accidentally fallen asleep in his bed. The fox is scared of the badger’s teeth, so doesn’t want to do anything violent at close range.
The badger is onto him and replaces himself with the fox’s rolled up dressing gown, safely escaping a wet fate. But he’s not going to get out before enjoying the look on fox’s face when his prank fails.
(The badger is a proxy for the baby rabbits. The baby rabbits never genuinely come near death. It was always the badger who was for the chopping block.)
Peter and Benjamin have spent the night digging a tunnel under the house, hoping to rescue Ben’s children that way. This plan is interrupted when the fox returns home after a night hunting.
Notice how Potter depicts Benjamin and Peter on both sides of the window — once from their point of view, once from the point of view of the bunnies in the oven.
When they came near the wood at the top of Bull Banks, they went cautiously. The trees grew amongst heaped up rocks; and there, beneath a crag—Mr. Tod had made one of his homes. It was at the top of a steep bank; the rocks and bushes overhung it. The rabbits crept up carefully, listening and peeping.
This change in pace, the emphasis on detail at the life-and-death moment, that is typical of a thriller.
The fox’s house itself is the set of a horror or a thriller:
This house was something between a cave, a prison, and a tumbledown pig-stye. There was a strong door, which was shut and locked.
The setting sun made the window panes glow like red flame; but the kitchen fire was not alight. It was neatly laid with dry sticks, as the rabbits could see, when they peeped through the window.
But this is still a children’s book, after all. Potter does lighten the tone in several ways.
First, it happens Peter Rabbit is right. (I don’t think this absolves him of his sociopathy) and the young reader will sympathise with Peter Rabbit from having read Potter’s initial story starring him. So we are meant to believe him when he says don’t worry, the bunnies will be fine, just fine.
Second, the comical snoring. The description of Mr. Tod’s snoring seems designed to provide comic relief, though I’m not sure it works much.
If I didn’t know this video had been dubbed over with a woman’s snoring I would’ve assumed the snoring was a part of the original foley. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PrydCVGvA48
The Battle scene includes a tantrum, as children’s stories often do — the fox seems to want to control his temper. He takes a moment to go outside and have a bit of a meltdown. He decides a coal-scuttle and walking stick won’t do for weapons. The badger has quite fearsome teeth. (This reminds me of Little Red Riding Hood.)
Peter and Benjamin come near death when the fox trips over their shallow burrow.
While the fox and badger are having an actual fight, the bunnies escape.
Now everything is cosy again. Well, sort of. Things will never be the same now that Mr. Bouncer has proven himself a totally irresponsible grandfather, letting in a monster, getting high together, basically handing over his own grandbabies.
But when the men arrive home with the rescued babies, Flopsy forgives her father-in-law and he is rewarded with a pipe, even though the misdemeanour of negligence hasn’t changed. (I wouldn’t hire him again, would you?)
Unreal is a collection of 8 short stories, first published 1985. This was the book that really kicked-off Jennings’ career as a children’s author. Though it wasn’t called that at the time, these books are excellent examples of hi-lo literature.
I am revisiting the work of Paul Jennings with the benefit of 2019 hindsight. I’d like to clarify what writing lessons I can learn from Paul Jennings, against what to throw out.
STORY STRUCTURE OF “WITHOUT A SHIRT”
The premise of “Without A Shirt” is masterfully childlike.
I’m reminded of a group of boy classmates in Year 9 who started saying ‘Cheese On Toast’ very randomly. There was nothing behind this joke — it wasn’t an in-joke — the joke was that it was utterly meaningless.
One day these boys got in big trouble. They stole a piece of chalk (I guess our high school was phasing out blackboards in 1991) and used that chalk to write Cheese On Toast in huge letters across the blank canvas wall of the Hunter Gym. Although chalk isn’t permanent, and although Cheese On Toast is harmless, a PE teacher walked past, saw the graffiti and started fuming. My friends and I happened to be sitting right in front of the wall. Looking back, the boys were probably hoping to impress.
The scary PE teacher interrogated us girls until we told him who had done it. I still regret telling this teacher who’d done it, because they all got detention. For ‘graffiti’ that would come off in a shower of rain.
Paul Jennings understands the things that kids do for fun. One reading of “Without A Shirt” is that Brian Bell’s speech issue is an analogue for stuttering or similar, but really, the premise could derive for this kind of playful ridiculousness.
Playing with words in this way is carnivalesque. Children are expected to say certain things at certain times, and by defying this expectation, humour ensues.
Paul Jennings does his trademark story-within-a-story in “Without A Shirt”, because Brian is doing a speech about his own family history. It starts, “A man fell overboard”. The content of this Level 1, metadiegetic speech is important to the Level 0 plot.
Sue Featherstone, a high prestige girl (her father is the mayor), makes fun of him for his speech issue.
Paul Jennings likes to use girls for this role, on the basis that boys like to impress girls even more than they like to impress other boys.
Margaret Attwood: Men are afraid of being laughed at. Women are afraid of being killed. In this story, Brian happens to wish Susan were dead. Is this mitigated by the fact that he also wishes himself dead?
Not really. This oppositional set up feels so icky to me. That’s because I’m reading this story in 2019. Margaret Attwood’s quote wasn’t published until 1996. “Without A Shirt” was published more than a decade earlier than that. Hard to remember this, but people didn’t have a clue about the experiential differences between existing as a man versus as a woman.
The Featherstone family is a formidable opponent — Sue Featherstone’s mother is their landlady. She comes to evict them.
After eviction, they go live in the cemetery. This is a very Paul Jennings thing to do. Common sense and reality is replaced by an absurd decision. But then he reveals that they actually live in a ‘cottage’ in the middle of the cemetery.
Now we have the comic scenario of a dog that digs holes, living in a graveyard. Paul Jennings needs the audience to understand this connection, so the real estate agent walks away chuckling about it. This is a necessary step.
Because predictably, the dog starts bringing bones back. Unpredictably (and quite a bizarre writing choice), the bones don’t come from the graveyard. They come from the nearby beach which we didn’t know about.
Brian fits the skeleton together, same as a detective in a detective story would piece together a puzzle. Eventually, Brian realises the skeleton is that of his great-great-grandfather, whose bones are unhappy because they are scattered and aren’t wearing a shirt.
Once Brian has pieced the bones together and dressed them in the found-shirt, he no longer says “without a shirt” at the end of every sentence. The ghost has found peace.
Notice how Paul Jennings doesn’t give a fig about coincidence. That is the feature of the tall tale. By complete coincidence, Brian is giving a speech about his great-great-grandfather at the same time his dog happens to find the great-great-grandfather’s skeleton.
STORY STRUCTURE OF “THE STRAP BOX FLYER”
This short story reminds me very much of a picture book Wolf Comes To Townby Denis Manton (now hard to get).
The story opens from the trickster’s point of view. We are let in on the trickster’s scheme, so we are in audience superior position.
Next we are shown a few incidents in which the trickster causes trouble for a community.
In both stories, a boy dies as a result. So yes, it is okay to kill off a child in books for very young readers, if you were wondering. Writers have to be very careful about this, because it’s sometimes okay and at other times not. The rules seem to follow the rules for killing off mothers: If we don’t get to know the character, their death does not affect us. If we’re going to kill off a child character, set up the story so the child expects it. Don’t spring child death on the reader. Genre is important. Child death in funny stories is okay. Child death in sad stories must be handled with more care. See also: Death in Children’s Literature.
In both stories, the trickster leaves town in search of a new community of gullible people to trick.
Here’s where the stories part ways: The trickster wolf in Wolf Comes To Townsuccessfully gets away. The trickster scam glue-seller in “Strap Box Flyer” meets his trickster match, then comes to a sorry end.
Being a good con artists also makes you a really good mark. This is a psychological phenomenon which applies to real con artists. The con artist is always on the knowing side of things, and they can’t imagine themselves on the dupe side. This gives them a lot of (false) confidence.
This is explored in many stories which end in the con artists getting duped by another con artist e.g. Dirty, Rotten Scoundrels.
This is one of those stories. Audiences do love tricksters. We love it even more when a trickster outwits another trickster.
Giffen, con artist, wants to get rich quick. He is immoral. He is only after money and, by extension, power. He is the ultimate trickster villain.
His opponent appears as the “little man”, named Flinty. Flinty is a symbolic name. When describing a person, the word means very hard and unyielding. We know that this trickster is going to outsmart Giffen.
Once Flinty appears, the audience is now placed in audience inferior position. We have full trust in Flinty and watch him as he carries out his plan.
It is satisfying to watch what a master trickster does, but only when that information is withheld from the audience. This is how heist stories work, too. To see how this is done, it’s a good idea to refer to the heist subgenre of crime. Breaking Bad and Animal Kingdom are TV series for adults which also structure their episodes in this way.
The plan: Flinty makes a flying machine, uses Giffen’s glue to hold it together, then coaxes Giffen up into the air. That’s the plan in sequential order.
But note that, as revealed, the audience is shown the plan in reverse order. The LAST thing the reader learns is that the flying machine has been held together with Giffen’s glue.
When it comes to the metrics of ascent and descent, artificial intelligence has come up with six basic plots:
Jennings has clearly drawn upon the Greek tradition here. One of the most influential stories in Western literature is the Greek story of Icarus and Daedalus.
Giffen’s glue = the wax, a symbol of hubris.
A lot of the time, flight = freedom. Not just freedom from specific circumstances in the plot but also freedom from more general burdens. In a slightly religious sense, flying = freeing of the spirit. The notion that the disembodied soul is capable of flight is deeply embedded in the Christian tradition and probably many others. But for the ancient Greeks and Romans this concept was problematic: the souls of blessed and damned alike were meant to go to an underground realm. The belief in a celestial heaven leads much of later Western culture, who think of a soul as light and travelling upwards.
But as in all symbols, the ability to fly can also be symbolic of ‘failure to fly’, or failure to take advantage of one’s freedom.
If anyone flies or falls for too long, Icarus and his imaginary cousins are probably being invoked.
There are plenty of stories about flying whose flights — like Icarus — are interrupted prematurely.
These much earlier stories in the Icarus tradition were written in highly spiritual times and the endings include an element of rebirth. (Gravity starring Sandra Bullock is a clear example of that. Testament of Youth is another.)
But there is no such religious awakening in a Paul Jennings story. Instead, the reader gets a simple ‘plot revelation’, in line with a comedy set up and gag. After fully expecting it, the reader learns how the “little man” tricks the con artist.
We extrapolate that the con artist falls to his death. This feels like a just punishmentbecause he has already killed a child, and is fully a victim of his own misdeeds.
STORY STRUCTURE OF “SKELETON ON THE DUNNY”
The Australian-ness of this story is evident from the title. We know it’s going to follow in the tall tale tradition.
Bob is scared of the outhouse toilet at his Aunt Flo’s house. The name Aunt Flo is in itself funny, for being a pun on ‘flow’.
Bob’s problem is that the dunny is haunted by the ghost of Old Ned, who died out there. Comedy derives from Aunt Flo’s deadpan story that she came home to find her house sitter dead on the toilet. Only his skeleton was left.
When the ghost makes Bob’s teeth chatter, he breaks one off. The plate is expensive, then falls down the toilet.
This doesn’t make sense to me, since I’ve never used an outhouse connected to the sewerage system — it’s always a composting set-up — but I suppose such things exist. It’s technically possible that this house is so old, the sewerage system was set up without the owner (Aunt Flo) moving the toilet into the house. I don’t know the sewerage history of Timboon.
Anyhow, Bob now wants his plate back.
Notice what Paul Jennings has done with the desire line: There’s really nothing Bob can do about getting rid of the ghost. Bob’s deep desire is to ‘use the dunny without being scared to death’.
But this deep desire to avoid fear needs an active desire-line which functions to propel the narrative forward. So Jennings gives him a surface level desire-line — a Holy Grail type quest: To find a lost item.
The ghost of Old Ned.
Bob goes to a fantasy version of a treatment plant, where all sorts of lost things are kept in baskets. He finds his tooth and now
The valuable painting is hidden in the roof of the dunny. (This information has been planted earlier in a very obvious form of Chekhov’s Gun.)
Old Ned floats up into the sky.
He was gone. He wouldn’t be coming back.
Paul Jennings must have realised that the audience would be left with a refrigerator moment: What was a painting doing in the roof of the dunny? Chapter 10 functions as an epilogue, in which the narrator offers his theory on that.
Because epilogues are inherently boring (with closures instead of reveals — the storytelling equivalent of tidying your room), Paul Jennings makes it seem less epilogue-y by including a supernatural gag in Chapter 10: The recovered painting now contains an image of Old Ned (on the dunny).
STORY STRUCTURE OF “LUCKY LIPS”
Growing up in the 1980s my parents subjected us to a lot of Cliff Richard. I am mortified to find I know all the lyrics to “Lucky Lips”. The things the brain stores…
“Lucky Lips” (the song) is a simple wish fulfilment fantasy for the Every Man — you don’t have to be rich or good-looking (or even decent) — all you need are lucky lips and you’ll have ‘a baby in your arms’.
I resisted re-reading this Paul Jennings story by the same name. I didn’t remember the plot — I remembered I had never been comfortable with now. Now that it’s 2019, and I am older myself, I am better able to articulate what is wrong with this story: It is rapey. It is also uncomfortably heteronormative. The transgression between boy and animal would have always felt risque, which was Paul Jennings’ point. But now, that feels rapey as well.
Moreover, this story promotes the idea that being sixteen and never kissed is shameful. It turns sex into a competition and a milestone, which mutually excludes its main function for teenagers: enjoyment and excitement.
“Stuck up snobs,” he said. “I’ll teach them a lesson.” He decided to make the most popular girl in the school kiss him. That would show them all.
The adventures of Marcus fail to amuse me at all. This character is very creepily reminiscent of Elliot Rodger, who in 2014 went on a misogyny driven murder spree before ending his own life.
Marcus doesn’t realise this about himself, but the third person narrator is able to tell us that Marcus is stuck up and unlikeable.
Because he lives in a culture which tells boys (especially) that having sex with girls is a prerequisite for manhood, the fact that he’s never been kissed goes against his sense of self. He feels entitled to girls’ attention.
After setting this up, Jennings had a chance to subvert the cultural expectation. But he doesn’t do that at all. Instead, he punishes Marcus for being stuck up and manipulative. There is no critique of the cultural forces at work.
On the page, Marcus wants to be kissed by girls.
His deeper desire, dangerously off the page, is that he feels entitled to girls and their bodies and their attention, and requires this attention to prove his own sense of worth. Desire and need are meant to intersect in a good story. I’m in no doubt of my own analysis. The problem is, the child reader is likely to only see the slapstick humiliation of the story.
This story is absolutely typical of the 1980s, in which ‘consent’ never once came up in sex education lessons. Paul Jennings does try to lampshade this icky aspect. ‘Consent’ wasn’t used in this context, so he talks about ‘stolen kisses’:
Marcus started to feel a bit guilty. He fingered the lipstick in his pocket. Should he use it? He remembered something about stolen kisses. Was he stealing a kiss if he used the lipstick? Not really — if he used it, Jill would be kissing him of her own free will.
But free will is a very controversial concept. Just take a listen to what philosophers and public intellectuals disagree about when they talk to each other.
So if a children’s author is going to delve into the nature of free will, it’s super risky to use sex as a means to do that.
It soon becomes clear that these girls (referred to — jokingly, I’m sure — as ‘victims’ on the page) do not have free will at all. The setting magic of the lipstick takes free will away from them. Marcus is justifying non-consensual sexual acts to himself. These girls are horrified to learn they have kissed a boy they’re not attracted to at all.
Jill jumped back as if she had been burned. She put her hand up to her mouth and went red in the face. … Jill didn’t know what to say. She was blushing. She couldn’t understand what had happened.
As a forty year old woman myself, I’m also icked out by Paul Jennings using Fay Billings’ mother as his ‘punishment victim’. Mrs Billings is too old for Marcus — of course — and her ‘old-ladyness’ is his first punishment. He himself is non-consensually kissed, and this is the first (more minor) part of his punishment.
He realises he’ll have to be more careful if he doesn’t want to be kissed by undesirable older women. So he stops going round to girls’ houses and instead makes sure he surrounds himself only by other girls.
Marcus wants to be kissed by only one type of girl, and only one at a time. But in a scene I’m sure Paul Jennings intends as ridiculously slapstick, Marcus is kissed by many at once.
The ‘catty girliness’ of these ‘females’ is underscored by the following description:
They shrieked and screamed and fought: they scratched and fought and bit.
I’m not sure if this idea is completely dead yet, but I clearly remember being told by my father in the 1980s (my father is the exact same age as Paul Jennings) that boys fight ‘fair’ and girls fight ‘dirty’. A punch in the face is ‘fair’; scratching and biting is ‘dirty’.
I don’t know why I was told that, since I never relied on scratching and biting myself, and never got into physical tousles with my brothers anyway. This was common wisdom.
Leaving aside the fact that a single punch can be deadly, whereas biting and scratching tends to create surface wounds, there is no evidence to support a gender division between ‘ways of fighting’. When lives are threatened, people fight for in any way they can. When a victim is overpowered by size and strength, they will use non-muscle means of escape, whether male or female. In order to understand how and why people fight, researchers need to move away from gendered constructs. This is especially important now that women are becoming more violent, even as men become less violent. (At least, here in Australia.)
The wilfully sexist misunderstanding of gender and violence is why Paul Jennings’ description of the girls mid-Battle is so offensive to me. Also, there’s that very long history of women being compared to cats (and to birds). Scratching and biting are distinctively feline.
Plus, as he has done in other stories, Paul Jennings has created a scenario in which the worst thing that can happen to a boy is being laughed at by girls.
Well, almost the worst thing.
Marcus’ final punishment is left off the page, and for good reason. It would be disturbing to watch. The reader can easily extrapolate: Marcus is kissed by the ultimate unattractive partner: an actual sow who has just eaten slops.
Women have been placed on an attractiveness continuum throughout this story as a way of building to a climax.
First we have the ‘unattractive class’, starting with the witch, leading to the forty-year-old woman, then to girls who laugh at Marcus, then to the sloppy sow.
At the top of the ‘attractive class’ we have the designated ‘popular girl’, though the new (vulnerable) girl is a better victim, so Marcus targets her first.
“Lucky Lips” is a gross-out narrative at its most damaging. Give me the poo jokes any day.
STORY STRUCTURE OF “COW DUNG CUSTARD”
As a kid, whenever I asked what was for dinner, the answer was ‘horseshit and rhubarb’, or ‘a big potato with a little one’. The title of “Cow Dung Custard” reminds me of the first (non-)answer. I’m sure I’m not the only child of the 80s who got this response. (My child doesn’t even need to ask — it’ll be one of my three rotating dishes.)
“Cow Dung Custard” is a rags to riches plot with a surprising ending.
I imagine this short story was inspired by the terrible stink of hair removal cream, which has gotten less offensive in recent years, but still smells like hell.
A boy has no social prestige because his father makes him collect dung for his prize-winning vegetable garden.
The Cow Dung kid, along with his mad-scientist archetype father, want enough money to buy a farm where their smelly cottage industry bothers no one.
The rest of the townsfolk are up in arms over the stink, especially after the father invents Cow Dung Custard, which smells so bad it attracts a massive swarm of flies.
The flies themselves are an environmental opponent, in a comical variation of a cyclone movie such as Twister.
Father and son must get rid of the flies and appease the townsfolk. They plan to mix a batch of Cow Dung Custard so strong it kills the flies.
The Battle is against the flies but also against the stench of their own invention.
They realise it smells so bad it makes hair fall out.
In an epilogue paragraph, we learn that cow dung custard has been rebranded as hair-removal cream and has made father and so so rich that they have moved out to the farm. Now, only the characters and the readers of this book know that hair removal cream is really made of cow dung.
STORY STRUCTURE OF “LIGHTHOUSE BLUES”
I read the first section of this story when I was reminded of a film which really took off for a long time in my hometown of Christchurch. It played at one of the Arts Centre cinemas and was called Gloomy Sunday (Ein Lied von Liebe und Tod). I went away and found the tune to Gloomy Sunday. I’ve played it heaps over the last 24 hours. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bI7nbxec7XQ
I don’t know why I’m listening to it, because it really is gloomy. At least, I think so.
Not everybody experiences chills when listening to music. Those people are called ‘musical anhedonics’. Between 1 and 5 percent of people experience “specific musical anhedonia”.
Not all emotions associated with music are good emotions. This is in line with my usual response to classical music: I usually feel bittersweet. I feel like I just watched a film with a pyrrhic victory for an ending:
In a study involving more than 1,000 people, Swedish music psychologist Alf Gabrielsson showed that only a little over half of strong experiences with music involve positive emotions.
Many involved “mixed emotions” (think nostalgic or bittersweet love songs), and about one in ten involve negative emotions.
But the vast majority of readers have experienced emotional reactions to music.
In “Lighthouse Blues”, Paul Jennings extends this feeling and uses the same trope used in the 1999 film Gloomy Sunday: A song which affects a character so deeply has an effect not only their emotions but on their fate.
The affective music Jennings chose for this story is “Stranger On The Shore”. I’m pretty sure Paul Jennings’ CD tower looks the same as my parents’ CD tower. I grew up with the clarinet tunes of Acker Bilk, and now associate it with long car trips. I also associate it with elevator/waiting room music.
I’m not familiar with Stay Away From Me Baby, but I’m guessing it’s this one, by Larry Bryant:
But Paul Jennings has chosen these ‘grandpa’ tunes for a reason. The third song is a childlike tune, and juxtaposed against those first two, creates humour. Do kids still know this song? I’d say all kids of the 1980s know it.
STORYWORLD OF “LIGHTHOUSE BLUES”
Both setting and era-of-publication are important for “Lighthouse Blues”.
Paul Jennings grew up in an era with lighthouse keepers, or ‘wickies’, as they were often known. Here in Australia, the majority of lighthouse keepers became redundant in the early 1980s, just a few years before Jennings published this short story.
With the advent of satellite navigation and automation of many functions, lighthouses were deactivated in 1983 and no more keepers were employed.
Even when lighthouse keepers existed, we have long associated lighthouses with loneliness:
While the image of the lonesome keeper, trudging the stairs up the light tower all through the long wind-swept nights is partially true, many keepers had families who lived with them. They moved from lighthouse to lighthouse around the coast. Together the families worked, played, taught their kids, grew their own food and even made their own home brew.
Apart from the symbolism, islands remain very useful to storytellers because a character stuck on an island cannot easily escape. Oppositional characters are thrown together, and this creates an extra layer of conflict. Not all islands are actual, literal islands, in the ocean. A small town in the middle of nowhere can also function as an island. A hotel in the middle of a massive blizzard is an island. Various kinds of heterotopias (or ‘heterotopies’) can be used as symbolic islands. The island itself is a heterotopia (Foucault’s terminology) because the rules there are different. The island is therefore a perfect setting for a ghost story. Anything might happen.
Anton’s problem is that he can hear ghosts but can’t see them. His ‘problem’ is initially more of a mystery to be solved.
Notice that in stories, opposition is introduced at the same time (or instead of) a mystery.
Anton wants to find out why he’s hearing music.
When Anton learns the lighthouse will be unmanned, he wants to fight to keep it manned.
The ghosts are the supernatural opposition, for frightening Anton.
But the big, bad outside opposition is the unseen, unnamed ‘they’ who want to shut down the lighthouse and turn it into an unmanned one.
Anton points out to the ghosts that playing music isn’t going to help them keep the lighthouse manned. This is a comic spin on the usual scary ghost story, because it contains logic. Ghost stories are about atmosphere, not logic. So humour derives from the juxtaposition of logic and a generally inexplicable scenario.
Playing music on Friday nights won’t stop them. We have to think of something else.
The ghosts can’t talk so they can’t formulate a plan together. But they start playing a well-known protest song.
(Pete Seeger’s version is quite moving. He sings ‘straight and gay together’, which was radical for 1966.)
Anton teaches the ghosts to come out during the day so that they can scare the wreckers. Jennings might have made the decision to keep their practice behind the scenes, and simply show the reader the scare.
But because the scare itself doesn’t have a twist, he made the decision to show us the ironic scene of a boy teaching ghosts as if he’s the teacher and they are his students. This is a hierarchy flip, and is therefore satisfying itself, especially for a young reader.
The wreckers are terrified when they see the floating instruments and hear their music.
We’ll Meet Again is a classic wartime tune. When you consider how many young men hearing this song never saw their loved ones again, it’s very sad. (Yep, I also grew up listening to The Very Best of Vera Lynn.)
Well, that is just about the end of the story.
This marks a kind of epilogue. The story is not finished. A child and ghosts save the day. There’s a pyrrhic victory with Stan dead. But it’s not a complete story, yet.
In part 10 we learn that Anton has been made lighthouse keeper.
And Stan has joined his father and grandfather as a third ghost. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gqsT4xnKZPg
STORY STRUCTURE OF “SMART ICE CREAM”
Smart Ice Cream is an example of a very short story.
The story starts in the iterative and our narrator explains that he is smart and handsome. We deduce that he is full of himself.
The switch to the singulative starts with:
Last week something bad happened.
His problem is that another boy is getting the same high score as him at school and this affects his inflated self-esteem.
Later, he is revealed to be rude and vindictive.
He wants to solve a mystery: How did Jerome Dadian get so smart? He’s sure he cheated.
The ice-cream man, Mr Peppi.
The narrator plans to look inside Mr Peppi’s ice cream van to find out what’s going on. Legend has it, his green ice creams cure all sorts of ills. The hypothesis is that Jerome has been given ice cream to make him super smart.
There are some minor big struggles leading to the Anagnorisis. Those are the insults the narrator dishes out to his less fortunate classmates.
The Battle scene itself is a quiet one, in which the narrator breaks into the ice-cream van with a crow bar, then gets into the forbidden special ice creams.
The narrator has the following revelation:
I think I have made a mistake. I don’t think Dadian did get any Smart Ice Cream.
Meanwhile, the reader knows that ‘smart alec’ does not mean ‘smart’. I laugh in recognition at that, because when my daughter was very young I called her a smart alec and she took it as a great compliment.
The final paragraph is written in a dumbed-down style full of obvious spelling errors. The narrator is no longer smart. He’s not a smart alec, either. The truth is, he was probably never smart, just a braggart.
STORY STRUCTURE OF “WUNDERPANTS”
Though this story doesn’t include girls with speaking part, “Wunderpants” is a case study in how to foment disrespect for girls. Short answer: With femme phobia. There’s possibly a bit of homophobia too, though it’s subtle for a child audience:
The underpants felt strange. They made me tingle all over. And my head felt light. There was something not quite right about those underpants — and I am not talking about the fairies.
Aside from all that, this is a disjointed story. I suspect it was positioned last in the book because it is the least successful as a narrative.
David’s main problem is that he’s a victim in a hierarchy power play between boys. They all live in a macho system whereby the worst thing you can be is weak and girly.
But of course, that’s my take on it.
David wants to watch Mad Max 2 with ‘all the other kids’ but his mean dad won’t let him. He especially won’t let him after it’s revealed the narrator used his father’s toothbrush to brush his pet mouse.
After this, the desire line seems to change. The desire to go to the movies is a MacGuffin. Section one exists to introduce the mouse in a funny way, and to set up a bit of family context and empathy for the narrator, who gets up to funny pranks and hi-jinx.
This is really a story about a race, which symbolises the hierarchy between a community of boys.
So the overwhelming desire of David is to win a mouse race, in which he’ll earn a substantial amount of money.
David’s father is his first opponent for standing in the way of him going to see Mad Max 2.
Scrag Murphy is the child opponent. “The meanest kid in town”, literally. (Jennings makes use of the cliche to draw a quick character sketch.) We’re told he’s carrying too much weight to run in the race (though he does manage to run away with the underpants). The fat kid bully is a common character from the 1980s. Now it seems fat phobic. But it did convey something important, perhaps — that bullying is a network of transferred abuses, and the fat kid bully has no doubt been bullied himself. Scrag is likely to beat the narrator in the mouse race because he has the fastest mouse. He speeds his mouse a special diet.
Now the mother becomes the opponent. She’s made a pair of pink underpants from fairy fabric and insists David wear them. (I do find myself thinking “Why doesn’t he just… take them off without his mother knowing. The last thing you want is for the reader to think “Why doesn’t the character just”.)
Pete, the best friend, becomes a temporary opponent by laughing his head off at David’s pink underwear.
There’s no real plan — David remembers it’s cross country day. On the way to school he discovers the pink pants give him super strength. This is supposed to be funny because pink means girly, and girly is the opposite of strong. But it only works as a joke if you believe that about girls in the first place.
David is winning the race by a long shot, so in a Hare and the Tortoise scene, he decides to have a swim in the lake, waiting for the others to catch up.
In a slapstick farce, David’s clothes are stolen by Scrag. He is forced to make his way home naked. On his way, his nakedness disgusts an old lady. (Girls’ naked bodies = appealing; boys’ naked bodies = disgusting in this kind of humour.)
David gets into trouble and also prepares his mouse for the big day.
The Battle is the mouse race itself, in which mice behave like greyhounds or horses (rather than actual mice).
The reader learns in the last sentence that David’s mouse is wearing the little underpants. That’s what gives the mouse strength.
For David, this is a victory. He has won against his main opponent.
When artists choose to illustrate a single narrative moment, they make a choice of lasting importance, because their illustration creates a memorable impression for an entire story, one that visually anchors an impression of that story in its reader’s memory. Illustration history is full of such memorable moments. In the illustration history of Grimm’s Tales, one image predominates, that of “Hansel and Gretel” beginning to eat the witch’s house.
When an illustrator signs on to illustrate a retelling of Hansel and Gretel, I bet the scene they look forward to the most is depicting the gingerbread house. On the other hand, how to make it original?
Hermann Vogel (1854 – 1921) was a German illustrator who worked for the publishing company Braun & Schneider. He was famous for the artwork which accompanied an 1881 collection of stories by Hans Christian Andersen, and also for an 1887 collection of satirical fairytales by Johann Karl August Musäus.
Kubel added black witch’s cats, which should have alerted the children, really. The children are rosy cheeked and look pretty well-nourished to me. The witch isn’t immediately obvious. The eye is drawn to the children first, catching the ambient light. The witch is dressed in white, but remains standing in shadow. The house is small, closing around her, like the house itself will gobble you up. The foregrounded tree reminds us that we are in the forest.
Otto Kubel was a German painter and illustrator who lived from 1868 – 1951. He studied at the Dresden School of Applied Arts then worked uneventfully, it seems, as an artist and sometimes illustrator of children’s books.
Kubel did live in various different places around Germany: In the early 1900’s Kubel went to live in Furstenfelbruck (a well-known artists colony — home of “Die Brucker Maler”). Next he lived in Munchen where he basically stayed put, apart from the later part of the Second World War in which he stayed in Partenkirchen.
Wanda Gag had only black and white to work with. She surrounds the children with white so they don’t disappear by accident into the image. This makes it look as if light emanates from the children themselves. In most depictions of the gingerbread house, light seems to come from the house itself, or out of the surrounding trees. The witch has not yet appeared, but a black cat on teh stoop lies in wait.
Wanda Gag made the Grimms’ fairy tales popular in America during the 1930s and 1940s, which is when anti-German sentiment was on the rise.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, as produced by Disney in 1937, helped when it came to popularising these German tales across the Atlantic.
Wanda Gag was born in 1893.
She was the daughter of a ‘free-thinking painter’ with seven children who he couldn’t feed properly. This might explain partly why Gag felt so drawn to a tale which is ultimately about starving children? Her father died when she was only 15, too. It’s possible she idolised him in the same way the tale idolises paternity (and vilifies maternity).
Gag is most famous for her book Millions of Cats.
She died in 1948, before she had finished the job she had set out to do, which was to translate and illustrate 50 of the Grimm tales.
Anastasia Arkhipova is an artist living in Moscow. She comes from an artistic family. Her father and grandfather were also book illustrators. But she formally learned the craft from well-known illustrator Boris Alexandrovich Dekhterev (1908 – 1993). She’s been a working illustrator since she was a student.
KAY NIELSON’S GINGERBREAD HOUSE
These children look a bit thinner than many other depictions. The trees are absolutely huge. The foliage growing around the house is affected by its magical aura and is therefore green, even though all the other trees are in ochres. There’s a soft curviness to this illustration. The only hard angles are the windows and chimney. Light comes from the house, somehow.
Kay Nielsen was a so-called Golden Age illustrator from Denmark who lived from 1886-1957. (Despite the name Kay being largely a feminine name in the West, in Denmark it is a masculine name.) Like Wanda Gag, he came from a highly artistic family. In 1939 he moved to California and because he was a white man and also good at art, he secured a job working for Disney. Can you guess which movie he worked on, judging by his style?
Well, he did some concept paintings for The Little Mermaid. His work was used in the “Ave Maria” and “Night on Bald Mountain” sequences of Fantasia. (Here’s the thing about that movie: It wasn’t actually produced until 1989. Nielsen died a long time before then.)
Walt Disney only employed him for four years. He had to return to Denmark, where he spent his final years. Unfortunately, trends had moved on, and Nielsen’s style of illustration was no longer in fashion.
Felicitas Kuhn (born 3 1926) is an Austrian children’s book illustrator born in Vienna. She started paid illustrating work in the 1940s, then retired a short while later in 1957.
Russian-Ukrainian illustrator Svetlana Kim was born in 1947.
Vojtěch Kubašta (1914 – 1992) was a Czech artist as well as an architect, so we might expect him to really enjoy creating pop-up houses, including fantasy houses such as one made of gingerbread. Kubašta was actually born in Vienna but moved to The Czech Republic (as it is known today) at the age of four.
He got into pop-up (three dimensional) art after 1948, when the Czech communist government made it very difficult to work in publishing. So he started making three-dimensional cards which advertised products: porcelain, sewing machines and what-not.
American illustrator Sheilah Beckett (1913-2013) was the first female artist hired to work at New York’s Charles E. Cooper Studio. Like various other illustrators of children’s books, Beckett also worked in advertising and greeting cards. She created art which sold wafers, chocolates and also advertisements for General Electric.
Sheilah Beckett never retired from illustration, and she moved with the times, switching to graphic design software as the times changed around her. (Note that she died at age 100!)
You may recognise Sheila Beckett’s work from Little Golden Books e.g. My Little Golden Christmas Book: Favorite Christmas Rhymes and Stories (1957) The Twelve Days Of Christmas: A Christmas Carol (1992).
Sheilah Beckett is a good reminder to us all: If you’ve always wanted to pursue a creative career but think you’re too old, you’re not!
Gustaf Adolf Tenggren (1896 – 1970) was a very well-known Swedish American illustrator. He had a fairytale style influenced by Arthur Rackham, also very famous and distinctive. Tenggren’s work is easily recognisable due to the silhouetted figures and caricatured faces.
Margaret Winifred Tarrant (1888 – 1959) was an English illustrator, and children’s author, specializing in depictions of fairy-like children and religious subjects. She began her career at the age of 20, and painted and published into the early 1950s.
This is a much more recent publication. I’ve covered it here. Neil Gaiman re-visioned the story and crafted a less sexist version than the usual, giving Gretel more agency.
This one looks almost like a photo which has had a Photoshop filter put on it. Look closer and you immediately see it’s not, but there’s a weird, unsettling realism about it. The light comes clearly from the moon filtering through trees, though Mattotti has surrounded the children — or the shadows of the children — with white as Wanda Gag did. The layout is also similar to that by Wanda Gag, with the children coming in from the right to a house positioned centre left.
Rodeffer is an artist working today, in a style that harks back to the 1970s. This is a relatively symmetrical version of the gingerbread house. It doesn’t look all that much like food — it doesn’t make you want to lick the page, but the hints of sweets are there. (It would be hard to make this look tasty in this colour palette).
GINGERBREAD HOUSE BY FRANK ADAMS
This edition of Hansel and Gretel was published around 1941, with illustrations by American Frank Adams (1914 – 1987). Before he got into art, Adams was an engineering draftsman during World War 2.
The war was hugely influential for this artist, whose best-known work is for The Home Front, published 1944.
Rie is short for Marie, who lived between 1887 and 1977. Born in the Dutch East Indies to a ship captain father, Cramer came back to the Netherlands and turned into a prolific Dutch illustrator. When commentators talk about the interwar period of illustration, they’re talking about the iconic work by Rie Cramer.
This artist was also a social activist. Some of her work was banned during WW2 for attacking National Socialism. So she wrote for an underground newspaper to get around the ban.
Bill Burgard foregrounded the creepy trees in this minimalist illustration. This is a forest with no life in it at all. There is a light source, coming from the bottom left. The house itself is almost in the centre of the layout… but not quite. These two aspects combined contribute to the uneasy, off-kilter atmosphere.
VARIOUS OTHER ILLUSTRATIONS OF HANSEL AND GRETEL’S GINGERBREAD HOUSE
Influenced by the mysterious place gingerbread holds in classic children’s stories–equal parts wholesome and uncanny, from the tantalizing witch’s house in “Hansel and Gretel” to the man-shaped confection who one day decides to run as fast as he can–beloved novelist Helen Oyeyemi invites readers into a delightful tale of a surprising family legacy, in which the inheritance is a recipe.
Perdita Lee may appear to be your average British schoolgirl; Harriet Lee may seem just a working mother trying to penetrate the school social hierarchy.
But there are signs that they might not be as normal as they think they are. For one thing, they share a gold-painted, seventh-floor walk-up apartment with some surprisingly verbal vegetation.
And then there’s the gingerbread they make. Londoners may find themselves able to take or leave it, but it’s very popular in Druhástrana, the far-away (and, according to Wikipedia, non-existent) land of Harriet Lee’s early youth.
In fact, the world’s truest lover of the Lee family gingerbread is Harriet’s charismatic childhood friend, Gretel Kercheval–a figure who seems to have had a hand in everything (good or bad) that has happened to Harriet since they met.
Decades later, when teenaged Perdita sets out to find her mother’s long-lost friend, it prompts a new telling of Harriet’s story. As the book follows the Lees through encounters with jealousy, ambition, family grudges, work, wealth, and real estate, gingerbread seems to be the one thing that reliably holds a constant value.
THE EDIBLE HOUSES TROPE
Edible houses predate Hansel and Gretel. “The Land of Cockayne” is a poem from a 14th century manuscript, Kildare Poems. This is Ireland’s earliest known literary text in (Middle) English. This particular poem is a satirical piece about a corrupt community of monks, who lead a life of fantastic luxury and dissipation in the mythical land of Cockaigne.
The gingerbread probably didn’t come into this German tale until its English translation.
Schwankmärchen (Farcical tales) of Schlaraffenland (German): delicatessen products are on the roof
Fabel de Cocaigne (French): fish, bacon, and sausages are on the roof
Navicula sive speculum fatuorum by Geiler von Kaisersberg: Pfannkuchen (pancakes) on the roof
The poem “Das Schlauraffenland” (1530) by Hans Sachens: Fladen (pancakes]) on the roof
Wrozki by Podworzecki (1589) (Polish): sides of bacon and dumplings etc.
Hänsel und Gretel: the witch’s house is built from bread, covered in cakes and the windows are made of clear sugar. (The text of Hänsel und Gretel is from various retellings from Hessen. Told by Henriette Dorothea Wild, 1793 – 1867).
Note: the house is made of bread, the roof is decked with cake and the windows were made of clear sugar (hellem Zucker). “Gingerbread” probably came from an English translation.
There is a strong audience for stories about women who kill men. Storytelling seems to be going through the Age of the Woman Killer right now, with the popularity of Dirty John (podcast and TV series) and a much publicised movie about the Lorena Bobbitt case, which originally happened in the early 1990s. On Netflix you’ll find many TV series about murderers, as well as some about specifically female murderers. (Killer Women with Piers Morgan, Deadly Women.) In these shows, of course, the gender of the killer is presented as her defining attribute.
Among the many reasons why we love crime stories in general, I have wondered if stories about killer women serve to offer men the rare opportunity to consider what it might be like to be scared of a woman. But actually, my theory doesn’t hold up. The stories we tell about women who kill tend to reposition dangerous women back into the role of victim. Very few truly scary women are permitted to remain in our stories without a narrative arc which puts her safely back into her meek, feminine role.
However, I think the discussion around the #metoo movement is finally starting to change the way we tell stories about women who kill.
Facts about women who kill
Across various countries, when women are murdered, nearly 1 in 4 are killed by an intimate partner.
The intimate partner who murders is overwhelmingly likely to be male.
Compared to how many women are beaten by intimate partners, women who murder those abusive partners are rare.
But when women do kill their abusive male partners, it’s most likely after multiple counts of abuse. She likely fears for her own life at time of killing.
Battered women syndrome describe this phenomenon. It is a psychological theory developed in the late 1970s. It is considered an outworking of the woman’s PTSD.
If a woman uses this reason in court, she is considered mentally ill. [But is it mental illness, or is it a rational, logical self-defence to which anyone might be driven in the same circumstance? Any answer to that can work both for an against the woman in court.]
In America at least, when women kill men, they most often use a gun. Even if they have wounded rather than killed, they’ve usually wounded with a gun.
Gender has been under-researched in criminology. We don’t have a good understanding of the psychology of women who kill.
Women who kill are less likely to have a criminal history.
The stories we tell ourselves about female victims
Whenever these facts are pointed out online, a proportion of voices points out that women can be annoying, and that women kill children too.
There are few stories about women who fight back. This may contribute to a culture in which men feel they can abuse women without physical consequences. Perhaps this is why Dirty John is such a satisfying real life story. The ending is so rare, and includes wish fulfilment, for women, with an underestimated female killer who doesn’t know her own strength until it’s tested. Roald Dahl’s “Lamb To The Slaughter” is a purely fictional example of a cold, calculating woman who gets away with her crime. The novelty is that she doesn’t use the typical weaponry of guns or knives, and that it includes cannibalism. The type of cannibalism we are most afraid of: Women serving up humans as food. This is an ancient fear of women as in control of the domestic sphere, explored in an old fairy tale such as “The Juniper Tree“. But the novelty of Dahl’s story is also that this is not a character we associate with cold, murderous intention. Women who fight back are regarded as anomalies in real life situations.
Women are held accountable for the violence men do. Sociologist Nancy Berns called this ‘degendering the problem and gendering the blame’. (Inversely, men are held responsibile for the good work women do. Let’s call that the Pygmalion Effect.)
Male violence is seen as violence in general, with gender excised.
But female victims are blamed for victim-like behaviours that are particularly attached to their gender.
Women’s magazines tend to hold women responsible for male violence. (They choose violent men, they are passive, they are victims, they are shameful for choosing to stay with men with children even after learning the men are violent.)
Men’s magazines treat violence against women with humour with no responsibility put on men as a gendered group. (They are not told to curb their anger and stop hitting women.)
Women are advised to: Choose different men, avoid adding stress to men’s lives, move far away, change their names.
Descriptions of victims often highlight their mental physical and emotional problems, or the couple’s financial problems. Domestic violence is described in terms that assign equal blame to victim and perpetrator.
This creates a story in which domestic violence is seen as an inevitable occurrence.
At first media depicts battered women as mad, later in the narrative they depict her as bad. This is known as the mad then bad pattern. Mad = emotionally abused to the point where she is mentally ill. Bad = scheming, manipulative. These women are depicted as helpless victims, until they’re behind bars. Then they are described as ‘safely’ behind bars and we’re all good with it.
Charlotte Bunch writes that if one ethnic national group were attacking another, killing and maiming them at the same rate as men attack and kill women (and she is speaking only of attacks by intimates), the situation would be held to constitute a state of emergency or even war. But domestic violence is only one campaign in what amounts to a widespread war against women.
The stories we tell ourselves about female killers
Women who kill are sensationalised, titillating stories. In fiction, “The Woman At The Store” by Katherine Mansfield sexualises (in a disgusting way) a female character. The reveal is that this woman has killed her husband. Annie Proulx does the same thing in “The Wamsutter Wolf“. In both stories, the murder is kept off the page, and the reader is left to deduce the violence. In both cases, the woman’s sexuality is underscored—written to disgust and to scare the reader in what amounts to psychological horror rather than gore.
Women killers are described as frightened rather than fearsome.
Women killers are described as feminine, with femininity emphasised. (Attractive, meek weak, small size compared to their victims, description of clothing and make up, polite, timid etc.)
Women killers are sexualised. So are their crimes. (Femmes fatales, high heels, seductress etc) When a woman kills a female lover, it might be described as a ‘cat fight’.
We like stories in which women killers don’t mean to kill. Case in point, Thelma & Louise.
Women killers get a backstory(ghost). Everyone wants to know what motivates them. We want to know their history of past abuse over time. “A Rose for Emily” by William Faulkner is all about the troubling back story of a woman who kills. We deduce she is obsessive, a shut-in, not quite right in the head.
Stories about women who kill tend to dwell on the point where she picks up and uses her weapon. Writers tend to consider a women who kills a ‘man bites dog’ story. Similarly, in other types of stories there tends to be a strong emphasis on a certain aspect of it. You won’t find a Hansel and Gretel story without the edible house. More problematically, in stories about transgender experience, there is often uncalled for emphasis on the transformation itself (the application of lipstick, the putting on a dress, the surgeries, in the case of male to female transitions). In portal fantasies, a completely different (and benign example), there is emphasis on the portal itself. In storytelling in general, audiences crave emphasis on ‘transitions’. The point where a woman has enough and picks up a gun is equivalent — in universal storytelling terms — to her Anagnorisis followed by her Battle (the murder), and the consequences are her New Situation.
These stories are also redemption stories. As part of her redemption, she is returned to a more acceptable version of femininity: penitent, regretful, truly subordinate.
The audience is invited to gaze upon the broken and battered body of the female murderer — abuse which happened prior to her crime. This moves the woman to a more comfortable place for the audience — from predator to victim.
As part of the Plan part of the story of women murderers, stories suggest her plan should have been to simply leave her male batterer. As a fictional story, this may satisfy an audience. As a real life scenario, this is completely unrealistic. When women leave their abusive partners, the risk to their life becomes severely magnified. Leaving is the most dangerous thing she can do.
What we don’t tell in our stories about women murderers
There are several concepts we might turn to when talking about missing narratives. Stuart Hall has shaped the field of racial and ethnic studies. He talks about ‘the silences’. See Policing The Crisis, 1978.
There’s also the phrase ‘symbolic annihilation’, a term coined by George Gerbner in 1976 to describe the absence of representation, or underrepresentation, of some group of people in the media (often based on their race, sex, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, etc.)
The silences in narratives about women who kill
Stories of women who describe their decision to kill as necessary, despite being tragic, regrettable etc. (The only time I’ve seen this narrative is in a news program, during an interview with female prisoners. These women are viewed as unrepentant and it surely affects their parole and length of sentence.)
Stories which go into the wider culture in which this happens. Apparently, the new Lorena Bobbitt movie is a welcome change in this respect. It took Western culture more than 20 years to produce a reframing of this narrative, which I still remember everyone treating as a joke, even though I was 15 at the time, and living a world away in New Zealand.
Narratives which portray women murderers as strong and dangerous and deliberate.
Narratives which hold men responsible for stopping the cycle of abuse.
Stories which challenge the idea that battered women syndrome is a fact of life, and that men will be killed occasionally as a result, and that law enforcement will inevitably let women down in this regard (but they are doing their best).
Stories about concerned and caring men speaking out about other men who are abusive. Genuinely good men are rendered invisible in the media.
Stories about powerful, accomplished and capable women who find themselves in an abusive relationship. (Dirty John is a welcome new change in that regard, as well.)
Stories about the role of patriarchy in creating male violence. (The Gillette adof early 2019 was perhaps an example of that kind of narrative. It did not go down well.)
FOR FURTHER INVESTIGATION
If you’re a fan of true crime, definitely check out the Wordery podcast Real Crime Profile. With Laura Richards’ involvement, this is one of the few true crime shows which really gets it. Each week the hosts take a parallactic view of a true crime TV show.
“The Ritual” is a horror film directed by David Bruckner, adapted by Joe Barton from Adam Nevill’s novel. Although this film is pretty standard in its tropes and structure, the CGI monster makes the viewing experience truly scary. This article says more about the monster and its basis in Swedish folklore.
SETTING OF THE RITUAL
When I think of Sweden I think ‘safety’. I think of social security, free university, and a society that looks after its sick and elderly. This hygge expectation of Scandinavian countries is utilised by Luke Pearson in his creation of the Hilda series. It’s used again in The Ritual. On a hiking trip to a safe country like Sweden, what could possibly go wrong?
In common with fairytales, the forest in this horror is a metaphor for the subconscious. By entering the trees, you have signed on to take a deep dive into your darkest, most terrible fears. Importantly, the forest exists on the edges of civilisation. On top of a hill, the men make a memorial to their dead friend. This makes use of the symbolism of altitude, and cleverly, turns the area into a two-fold liminal space — between civilisation and forest, between life and death.
One reading of this film: A man struggles with guilt and regret when his friend is killed as he stands by, frozen by fear. He replays this situation over and over, wondering what he might have done differently. He blames himself, and when he imagines his friends also blame him, he becomes emotionally isolated from them, emerging alone, with no friendships intact. Nightmares feature as a strong thread throughout the film. The entire film could be the main character’s nightmare, in which he dreams he has lost not only one friend but all of them, one by one, plagued by guilt and blamed by them.
The man’s post traumatic stress disorder is symbolised by the monster. When Luke’s friends are picked off one by one, that’s him, cutting himself off, because hanging out with his usual friends only reminds him of the friend that he lost. The memory melds with the present moment in scenes which blend forest with corner store (where the murder happened).
This makes The Ritual is a horror story for the modern age: The monster represents a major psychological shortcoming. The main character (an everyman rather than a hero) must come face to face with his fears before he has a hope of overcoming them. This is in line with the tenets of modern psychology. Suppression and repression are thought to lead to intrusive thoughts, doing damage to our mental wellbeing until we share our fears with others, acknowledge them and use strategies to help us deal with traumas. The main character must come face-to-face with his demon (the monster). He literally comes face-to-face when the monster uses its creepy hands to grab his face.
STORY STRUCTURE OF THE RITUAL
The Ritual makes use of a classic trope of horror: A group of people go on a journey, they meet some kind of monster(s), and then each gets picked off, one by one. This is a horror-take on the classic mythic journey. In many ways, four men going off on a hiking trip is the same as a road trip film, because these characters are stuck with each other in close quarters, and the conflict between the men is as important to the narrative as the conflict between man and monster (which is scary, but not otherwise inherently interesting).
If you’ve watched enough horror you’ll predict who will be picked off first: The cockiest one. And you’ll also predict who’ll be left alive: The weakest one.
Whether we code this story as a nightmare or as a metaphor for the main character’s real life, he has lost all of his close friends by the end. But he has psychologically recovered sufficiently to go with his life. This is a classic pyrrhic victory. (These go hand in hand with tragic dilemmas.)
This is a story written, adapted and directed by men, and one of the first things that stands out to me is the masculinity of the main characters. The middle-aged friends are jokey-mean and have known each other since their university days. There’s a clear pecking order, with Hutch at the top. There is no room for shortcoming, which they equate with femininity. When Dom twists his knee/ankle, Hutch refers to him as an ‘Egyptian princess’.
At this point the men face a moral dilemma, literally depicted by a road (a dirt trail) similar to a crossroad. Forge on or turn back to in solidarity with their injured friend?
If this were a group of women in the same situation it would be more difficult for the writer to come up with a good reason for them not to turn back. Women would believe another woman who says she’s too injured to continue. But men of this particular milieu, with a long history of oneupmanship, are not afforded this luxury.
Competitive masculinity is apparent in the dialogue. The guy who hurts his leg is called an ‘Egyptian princess’. Later Hutch (the embodiment of tough manliness — and also the first to be plucked off) accuses another guy of conjuring up fairy tales, like his daughters. These guys think that being a man is the opposite of being a girl. What would a girl do? A girl would turn back. Hence, they have no choice but to press on. They take a ‘shortcut’ through the woods. This journey will reduce them to children a la Hansel and Gretel.
The viewer is left to deduce that the men have gone on the hiking trip to Sweden in memory of their dead friend. He wanted to go, even though they did not. They’re not at all athletic. These are men who’d rather be sitting around in pubs or on beaches. This is perfect for storytelling — it makes them fish out of water.
Although it’s the promise of beer that makes the four friends plough on through the Swedish woods, that is simply the conscious desire. It is the toxic competition and lack of empathy between them which drives them to plough on. But the monster will sorely test their manliness, as we later see them screaming, cowering and crying. By the time Luke emerges staggering from the woods, he is no longer the same man — he is possibly no longer a ‘man’.
I figure the monster is scary mostly because of its chimera qualities, blending human with animal. The human arms coming out of its jaw give it an insect appearance, and giant insects are terrifying. (Have you ever seen a blown-up image of a bed bug?) The nice thing about choosing Swedish folklore for a contemporary story is that Swedish monsters are shapeshifters. They can look however you want them to look.
Parts of the monster are revealed to us slowly, which creates several effects:
We feel a foreboding sense of decapitation. That is hardly subtle in this film — the offering they find in the cottage literally has no head — just hands holding its antlers in place.
We don’t know what exactly we’re in for. We wouldn’t know what to look out for, and we can’t avoid something we don’t understand. It’s everywhere and nowhere at once.
The gradual revelation of the monster symbolises the gradual descent into the darkest pits of psychology.
Eventually the entire monster is revealed and this is the Battle scene. It’s also the payoff for the audience, who enjoys the horripilation. The rule of horror: You can’t show bits and pieces of the monster without eventually showing us the monster. That would be unsatisfying.
Another part of the monster’s scariness derives from its movements. Slow and deliberate followed by rapid movements seem to be the most scary of all. This describes the movements of the most poisonous spiders in the world. (And I speak from experience — I once found the most poisonous spider in the world waiting for me on the carpet beside my desk.)
The old woman in the cottage in the woods is a very old trope, connected to the Baba Yaga stories seen across various eras and locations. This old woman is sometimes helpful, sometimes murderous, which makes her even more terrifying than the monster. At least with the monster you know what you’re getting. But the old witch in The Ritual, who shockingly reveals the stigmata across her chest in place of nurturing breasts, cares for Luke while torturing Dom. There’s no rhyme nor reason, to us.
Why is this creature always a woman? I believe it’s a dichotomy people carry regarding all women: motherly women and non-motherly women. Motherly women will lay down their lives for you. Motherly women will never ever do you harm. Their love towards all children — towards all people — is unconditional. But at some point in our development we must go out into the world, away from our actual mothers, and we must realise, bitterly, that not all women are going to love us unconditionally. This comes as a huge shock. For various reasons to do with how boys and girls are brought up differently, and the more distanced parenting approach of fathers, who let their daughters (and sons) down much earlier in life, the realisation that not all women are motherly types probably comes as an even bigger shock to men.
This is what makes The Ritual a solid horror film. It is genuinely scary. It says something deeper about the human condition. The masculinity of it stands out to me precisely because I’m not a man.
By the same token, is it possible to critique male fears while simultaneously indulging in them? The witch is terrifying because she is old and sexually unappealing. This trope has been historically terrible for older women.
The men are punished for their constant oneupmanship, but Luke is also punished for failing to ‘be a man’ and lay his life on the line for his mate. The possibility that he may well have been killed for being a hero is never explored overtly in the film.
“Negatives” is a short story by Annie Proulx, first published 1994 in Esquire, later included in the Heart Songs collection. You can read it online, with limited unpaid access. “Negatives” is the most brutal of the stories in this collection. Content note for rape.
Reasons to read this story:
If you’re writing a short story and think it may benefit from a ‘separatised’ introduction which forewarns the reader basically how it’s going to unfold. I do wonder at what part of Annie Proulx’s writing process she wrote that introduction. Did she write the rest of the story then realise it needed a little something at the beginning? That’s be interesting to know.
In any case, the way Proulx unfolds the story, mentioning the bath scene in the men’s dialogue, then later showing us the scene where Albina asks to have the bath that first time, is an interesting, spirally way to tell a story, and structuring a plot like this leaves the reader with the feeling of a vast unfolding, and even a short story feels like it has many layers.
Pathetic fallacy written beautifully: ‘The mountain pressed into the room with an insinuation of augury. Flashing particles of ice dust stippled the air around the house. The wind shook the walls and liquid shuddered in the glass.
A character dehumanised, in this case by turning Albina into a dog, in Walter’s eyes. Annie Proulx achieves this partly by telling us about Walter’s fantasises, as relayed at dinner parties, but eventually by stripping her naked. Her physical description also aligns somewhat with that of a dog, as well as the smell she leaves behind in a car (as dogs are inclined to do). Her children have ‘sown the back seat of his car with nits’, and she spends a lot of time sleeping in there. Dogs also sleep a lot. She hangs around like a stray, asking for an increasing amount of scraps. Nor does she retaliate, biting her owner’s hand, when abused like a dog. Her hair is short, ‘like fur’. Everything about Albina is dog-like.
A story with no clear ‘main character’: The character who changes (is traumatised) the most is a head we’re not allowed into.
This is because “Negatives” is basically what I call a ‘Blow-in Dastard’ story, which upends the ‘Blow In Saviour’ trope.
The way Proulx writes about the changing of a season, mirroring the change in character emotion, ending the paragraph by honing back in on the characters of this particular story:
THE DEEP AUTUMN CAME QUICKLY. Abandoned cats and dogs skulked along the roads. The flare of leaves died, the mountain molted into gray-brown like a dull bird. A mood of destruction erupted when a bull got loose at the cattle auction house and trampled an elderly farmer, when a car was forced off the road by pimpled troublemakers throwing pumpkins. Hunters came for the deer and blood trickled along their truck fenders. Walter took pictures of them leaning against their pickups. Through binoculars Buck watched loggers clear-cut the mountain’s slope, and Albina Muth slept in the Mercedes every night.
PHOTOGRAPHY SYMBOLISM IN “NEGATIVES”
As Karen Lane Rood writes:
[Negatives is} another story about outsiders’ misperceptions of the rural poor [and] speaks to another of Proulx’s ongoing interests: the various meanings of photographs and—by extension—of her own art.
Understanding Annie Proulx by Karen Lane Rood
“Electric Arrows“, from the same collection, opens with a photograph. In that story, photographs function narratively as a base from which the storyteller skip backwards and forwards in time. The photography motif in “Negatives” is— as the title punnily suggests — far darker than that. This story is about how rich people see poor people—as snapshots rather than as rounded individuals with entire lives of their own. Rich see them as grotesques, which — in the days before mainstream digital photography — is exactly how I felt looking at anyone in a film reel — the teeth are black, the whites of the eyes are black. Film negatives make a grotesquerie of anyone.
Proulx’s treatment of Walter and his photographs shows her realization of the danger inherent in his art. Walter’s photographs are expressions of his vision, not representations of reality. They are ‘choked down and spare, out-of-focus, the horizons tilted, unrecognizable objects looming in the foreground, the heads of people quartered and halved.’ His best photograph, he thinks, is one of a small house with an arbor: “Guests sorting through the photographs kept coming back to this dull scene until gradually the image of the house showed its secret hostility, the arbor turned harsh and offensive, the heavy grass bent with rage. The strength of the photograph emerged through the viewer’s eye was itself a developing medium. It would have happened faster, said Buck, if Walter wrote out the caption: The House where Ernest and Lora cool were Bludgeoned by the Son, Buxton Cool.’ Buck is not interested in Walter’s explanation: “If you have to say what something’s about, […] it’s not about anything except you saying it’s about something”. Buck and his friends want Walter to take nature photographs, to create beautiful pictures that do not disturb their carefully created serenity. Barb Cigar wants Walter to photograph the “lovely perfect leaves” on her trees.
Understanding Annie Proulx by Karen Lane Rood
CHARACTERS IN “NEGATIVES”
In “Negatives”, Proulx sketches characters who approach grotesque caricatures. Their names provide essential clues about their psyches. Buck B. has a name that is both tough sounding and cute. It is appropriate for someone who seems essentially asexual and comically naive in his desire to avoid anything disturbing in art or life; yet, as a wealthy man, he exerts power over others and harms them by his indifference. Bucks’ friend Barb Cigar is more dangerous, and more masculine, than Buck. Walter Welter’s name suggest his underlying sadism, while Albina Muth is the white moth drawn to Walter’s destructive flame for immolation.
Karen Lane Rood, Understanding Annie Proulx
Walter Welter — Proulx doesn’t shy away from poetic (borderline ridiculous) names. When I think ‘Welter’ I think of ‘welt’ — someone causing damage to skin with a strap. Walter is a photographer who moves in with a wealthy lover, Buck B. He has a fanciful, gossipy imagination and makes up stories about Albina Muth to entertain Buck’s dinner guests. Eventually Walter agrees to take a series of photos of Albina. As background he chooses an abandoned poorhouse and requires her to pose in increasingly degrading positions. Karen Lane Rood describes Walter’s feelings towards Albina as ‘eroticised hostility’ and I think this is a perfect term. This term has only become more and more useful — back in 1994 few had viewed pornography via the Internet. Now it’s common, as is the ‘eroticised, hostile’ feeling, I suspect.
Buck B — Another alliterative name, joining the two men symbolically together. Buck has been forced to retire from his job as the host of a children’s TV show. He’s come to northern New England for the scenery. In time for his arrival, he’s built a massive glass house on a mountainside. He takes up with the hobby of pottery, because isn’t that what rural, rustic people do?
Albina Muth — Albina is a poor, malnourished, unkempt woman whose age I revised downwards as I read. Buck dismissively calls her ‘The Local Downtrodden’. She lives with an abusive husband, and leaves him over the course of this story. With nowhere to go, she starts sleeping in Buck’s Mercedes, leaving behind a smell that Buck finds repulsive. This is the ultimate rich-poor juxtaposition. She begs Walter to take her picture, though we are never allowed inside Albina’s head, so we don’t know what’s motivating her. We can only guess. When someone takes your picture, for a moment at least, you feel important.
Barb Cigar — One of Buck’s new friends, whose aesthetic sensibility stands in direct opposition to Walter’s. She would like Walter to take a photo of her tree, which has sprouted pretty leaves, but Walter is caught up in the art movement of the 1980s and 1990s, in which there was a move away from ‘pretty’ photography into the aesthetics of the grim. Wabi sabi, with exaggerated emphasis on the sabi. Barb herself is a masculine figure compared to a dog due to the skin folds around her mouth.
Walter’s photographer friends — off the page, but we get snippets of dialogue on the phone. I read them as not just geographically but also emotionally distant types, who are all caught up in this idea that nothing means anything — nihilistic criticism — and there’s no point looking for meaning because art only means something to the person who took it or made it. (I wonder what Proulx’s own outlook is, regarding criticism and reviews of her work.)
STORYWORLD OF “NEGATIVES”
YEAR AFTER YEAR rich people moved into the mountains and built glass houses at high elevations; at sunset, when the valleys were smothered in leathery shadow, the heliodor mansions flashed like an armada signaling for the attack.
“Negatives” opening sentence
The opening of “Negatives” packs a whole lot of setting information into one sentence. Proulx is gifted in economy. (Some even call her ‘elliptical’ — as stories progress you have to fill in the gaps yer own self.)
The large house made mostly out of glass is freighted with symbolism in any work of fiction. I’ve yet to see a happy fictional family living inside a glass house. In the TV series Nashville, Juliette lives in a massive glass house but she’s pretty far from happy. A house is an outworking of the characters living inside it — more so in fiction than in real life. What is it about glass houses? Is it because they cost so much to heat, so we think of them as cold? Or is it because there’s no real barrier between the inhabitants and the difficulties of the outside world, so the house fails to provide protection? Anyone can see into a house made of glass.
Heliodor is a word I had to look up — it’s a yellow crystal. ‘Heliodor radiates the warmth and power of sunshine,’ apparently. So I guess Proulx is using it ironically. Is Proulx taking the mick out of crystal healers?
Heliodor has been used as a talisman to bring out honesty in others, and to regain what has been lost in terms of employment, prospects or money. It is an excellent crystal for the self-employed, or for those who struggle to balance care-giving and career.
In the workplace, Heliodor boosts drive and determination to succeed if others have worn away your enthusiasm. Carry or wear Heliodor to persuade others to back you financially or with resources.
The newest of these aeries belonged to Buck B., a forcibly retired television personality attracted to scenery.
“Negatives” second sentence
An aerie refers to the nest of a bird and includes the following associations: it is at high elevation, the bird is a bird of prey (e.g. an eagle) and it is secluded. Next, we’re told (comically) that a few weeks after Buck B arrives, Walter Welter is ‘disgorged’ into the town. This is a verb especially reminiscent of birds of prey: When bald eagles approach scavengers like dogs, gulls or vultures at carrion sites, they are known to aggressively attack them and try to force them to disgorge their food. (Annie Proulx is a master of verbs. I believe she has read a lot of non-fiction. Look at her publishing credits and she’s written a lot of rural-themed non-fiction too, before she found widespread publishing success with fiction in middle age.)
SIMILARITIES TO THE STORYWORLD OF “HEART SONGS”
Rural Vermont, suggests Proulx, is a dark force that affects most characters. In “Negatives,” for instance, the sadistic Walter Welter, recently relocated to Vermont, exploits the greasy, pitiful Albina Muth, photographing her nude in a series of increasingly humiliating poses that culminates in her falling through a rotting iron stove, where he gropes then rapes her. Even an “elderly curtain rod salesman” is “made such a satyr by rural retirement” that his live-in lover had to be “rushed twice to the emergency room.” The pathetic Snipe in “Heart Songs” is captivated by the “brushy, tangled land,” “and old pick up truck abandoned in a ditch” and a “secret wish to step off into some abyss of bad taste and moral sloth.” Snipe succeeds in his quest, seducing “fat Nell,” a local farmer’s wife whom Snipe mistakes for his daughter; he then writes a series of bad checks at a local mall.
The Geographical Imagination of Annie Proulx: Rethinking Regionalism by Alex Hunt
The image of a dishevelled woman crawling into an oven is of course reminiscent of Hansel and Gretel, the most enduring tale of its category, and the fairytale most symbolic of the forest. For writers, the forest can be anything at all: a cathedral, a utopian retreat, a place full of edible riches. For Annie Proulx — no surprise — the forest is a place of immorality and debauchery.
“NEGATIVES” AND SYMBOLISM OF THE FOREST
Something about the heavily forested New England landscape’s potential to encourage this sort of immortality and even debauchery was also felt by Puritans centuries ago. Puritans felt that the wild forest at the boundaries of their settlements was a place encouraging a form of moral deterioration that would lead to outright wickedness; they believed that “morality and social order seemed to stop at the edge of the clearing.”
The Geographical Imagination of Annie Proulx: Rethinking Regionalism by Alex Hunt
SIMILARITIES TO “YOUNG GOODMAN BROWN”
Indeed, the satyre-like behaviour exhibited by Walter Welter and the “elderly curtain rod salesman” hearkens back to Nathanial Hawthorn’s “Young goodman Brown,” when the protagonist leaves the village of Salem and ventures into the forest at night, only to hear rumors of sexual misconduct. In “Heart Songs”, as in Hawthorne’s tale, the remote forest context encourages if not determines characters’ behaviour. The curtain rod salesman is ‘made’ to do deviant acts, and Welter and Snipe experience an accelerated process of moral decay.
The Geographical Imagination of Annie Proulx: Rethinking Regionalism by Alex Hunt
STORY STRUCTURE OF “NEGATIVES”
The time span of a story is symbolically important, whether it take place over the course of years, a year, a season, day or hour. Annie Proulx tells us right away that this story doesn’t last a year.
But it was all over before the first snow and no one had to do a thing.
The reader is therefore prepared for something bad to happen. But what, and to who? Not to these guys — the inverse of Blow-in Saviours — wreaking havoc wherever they go, then toddling off on their rich, merry ways. The opening therefore serves as a frame for the ‘main narrative’, which is the series of events between Walter and Buck moving in and leaving.
Buck: He lives with a guy who brings trouble into his house. He has a poor taste in partners. His shortcoming is he can’t see (admit) what’s going on under his nose, until he suddenly does. Buck’s lack of power (despite his financial power) is symbolised by his limp.
Walter: Attracted to the dark underbelly of life and treats human beings of this world the same as he treats his objects. He justifies his actions by invoking the cause of high art.
Albina: The most vulnerable of the three main characters. She’s trying to escape from an abusive husband, who must be stalking her. She can’t go home, she can’t go to the mall. These days, this pattern of behaviour is known as ‘coercive control’. But like Buck, Albina can’t see Walter’s terribly dark side until it’s too late for her. She has low expectations of life and men, and as long as someone’s paying her attention (via taking her photo, for instance) then she will put up with a lot.
Buck: No plans but to live his dinner party, pottery life, in a rural area full of derelict families. Despite his big glass house, he plans to keep those derelicts on the other side of his walls. He tells Walter not to let Albina into (first) his car and (next) his house.
Walter: To pretend he’s not developing some kind of obsession with Albina, then ‘reluctantly’ agree to take her picture. This will goad her into a sense of safety.
Albina: Mistaking Walter’s interest as benign, Albina plans to sit in his partner’s Mercedes to escape her abusive husband, then to persuade him to let her bath, and finally to take her picture.
The Anagnorisis belongs to Buck, who has seen what we as reader just saw, but uncomfortably up close. This aligns Buck more closely to the reader than the other two characters.
Proulx does something interesting with the Anagnorisis part of this story, though, because people don’t tell the truth, not even to ourselves. Buck tells Walter to get out because it’s getting ‘too cold’. He doesn’t like the ‘stink’ in his car. He never lets on he saw what he saw. For all we know, he’ll pretend, even to himself, that he never saw that. He only acknowledges, for now, that he doesn’t want to be with Walter. Narratively, the Anagnorisis has happened, but perhaps only in part.
The reader, in contrast, knows exactly what Walter is like.
The reason Buck can suddenly see (literally, through binoculars) what Walter is like is because the land between his rich house and the poor house has been newly cleared. This is an example of delayed decoding, which Annie Proulx is famous for. Now we know why Proulx told us, as a part of all her beautiful scenery descriptions, why all those loggers had come into town. The following detail was planted for a plot purpose, not just to flesh out the scenery:
Through binoculars Buck watched loggers clear-cut the mountain’s slope, and Albina Muth slept in the Mercedes every night.
Baba Yaga is a legendary Slavic witch, or a hag, who lives in a hut that stands on chicken legs and who flies through the air in a mortar, using the pestle as a rudder. The predatory Baba Yaga, who has a special liking for children, is a subcategory of crone. She’s also known as Old Hag Yaga. Her name is synonymous with ved’ma, which means witch in Russian.
FEATURES OF BABA YAGA?
A BRIEF HISTORY OF BABA YAGA
The first extant mentions of Baba Yaga in text date to the 18th century.
Sometimes ‘Baba’ is translated into English as ‘Granny‘ but the word ‘baba’ contains no respect for age. A closer translation would be something like ‘crone‘, even though ‘baba’ is a shortening of the respectful ‘babushka‘ (grandmother). A minor insult is “Babka”, meaning a grumpy old woman.
She might be a chthonic goddess. (Chthonic means relating to or inhabiting the underworld.) Vladamir Propp proposed that her house on legs might serve as a cultural memory of initiation rituals.
‘Yaga‘ may be related to Slavic words for grudge or brawl, or to the Russian word for eating.
Baba Yaga may be a genius loci (protective spirit). On the other hand, she doesn’t appear to be a protectress of specific social groups. She’s not their enemy, either.
BABA YAGA’S BACK STORY
Femme coded monsters in general have backstories in which they become monsters because of masculine brutality and injustice.
BABA YAGA AND YOUNG PEOPLE
Cannibalism more generally is related to pregnancy, and our collective fear around it. (Before people had a good understanding of human anatomy, a pregnant woman appeared she had eaten someone.)
Baba Yaga is connected to children, first because she eats them, second because in some stories she has daughters (but never sons). Actually, though, in the classic Baba Yaga stories, she never actually eats the children. She threatens to. She also teaches the girls to do housework. She is a tool in a young person’s rite of passage into adulthood. In this way, Baba Yaga fulfils a specific cultural function: She teaches young people traditional values and rules of adult society so that they will grow up to be useful, functioning members of it. How does she select her victims? She preys upon those who deviate in this way.
She’s the slavic folktale equivalent of the Aunt Lydia character invented by Margaret Atwood in The Handmaid’s Tale, upholding the social norms of her own oppressors.
CONNECTION TO OTHER SUPERNATURAL CREATURES
In Russian imagination she is the aunt or mistress of all witches. She is sometimes compared to Hecate, the Greek goddess of magic, witchcraft, the night, moon, ghosts and necromancy.
Like your bog standard witch, Baba Yaga is cunning. She’s in control of natural and supernatural magic and above all of food supplies. She dispenses hospitality capriciously: Sometimes she’s welcoming, other times wants you to leave her the hell alone.
Here’s what Jack Zipes has to say about her:
[She is] not just a dangerous witch but also a maternal benefactress, probably related to a pagan goddess. [She] is inscrutable and so powerful that she does not ow allegiance to the Devil or God or even to her storytellers. In fact, she opposes all Judeo-Christian and Muslim deities and beliefs. She is her own woman, a pathogenetic mother, and she decides on a case-by-case basis whether she will help or kill the people who come to her hut that rotates on chicken legs.
(Pathogenetic: Pertaining to genetic cause of a disease or an abnormal condition.)
Sometimes she is said to be the mother of dragons.
BABA YAGA’S HOUSE
Her house is in the forest. More specifically than that, it’s in the land of the “thrice-nine kingdom“, the land of the living dead. This realm lies between the world of the living and the thrice-ten kingdom, the land of the truly dead.
Baba Yaga is unusually specific for a fairy tale character — she is often individuated. In fact there is something very specific and unusual about her: She lives in a woodland cottage that runs about on chicken legs.
She sets snapping teeth on her door for a lock, with hands to bolt it and human limbs to support it. Tiles are made of pancake, the walls of pies. A big oven blazes in the hearth where she sleeps at night.
Also, she fences her domain in the forest with the skulls and bones of her victims whose eyes glow by moonlight. (The skulls are used to decorate the pickets of the fence.)
HOW DOES SHE GET ABOUT?
Baba Yaga also has an unusual mode of flight. She ferries through the air in a pestle and mortar, sweeping her tracks with besom as she goes. (The pestle is the rudder.) Sometimes she travels in a flying cauldron. In her wake, tempests, hurricanes and tornadoes boil and roil.
This tale is a close cousin of the witch from Hansel and Gretel. Clever children are able to trick her.
Witch can have several meanings and exist on several axes. What’s the gender inverse of witch? Sometimes wizard (magic), sometimes ogre (gruesome).
She has witchy traits. When we say Baba Yaga is the equivalent of a witch, she’s the kind of witch who corresponds to the female ogre.
She can take shape of bird or cat (a sexist trope which predominates throughout all types of modern literature). This shows how very old is the tendency to link femininity to birds and to cats.
Sometimes, occasionally though, Baba Yaga is just a regular old woman, like the queen of Snow White.
THE DUALISTIC WOMAN
Baba Yaga is not always malignant. In fact, she is notoriously ambiguous, giving rise to the archetype of the dualistic woman. Her cottage can be considered a liminal space, functioning as a sort of portal between the light and the dark sides, or the border between life and death. She can swing in either direction.
One of the best-known and strangest characters (from a Western perspective) in Russian [Slavic] folk tales is a witch called Baba Yaga. According to Elizabeth Warner, there are two Baba Yagas, a good one and a bad one. Sometimes within a single narrative, Baba Yaga may display good and evil characteristics. She benignly feeds the hero in “little Ivan The Clever Young Man,” for example, and provides him with a “hot steam-bath,” but threatens to devour Vasilisa the Beautiful. Baba Yaga lives in a dense and dark forest in a cottage built on chicken’s legs that revolves on command. She is an aged, ugly crone and her nose and teeth are long and sharp. Not only is she emaciated like a skeleton, but the fence and gates of her house are built of human bones. According to Warner, “some scholars say” that Baba Yaga’s house guards the frontier between the mortal and spirit worlds.
Carolyn Davis, Voracious Children: Who Eats Whom In Children’s Literature
SIMILARITIES TO HANSEL AND GRETEL
Baba Yaga, like Hansel and Gretel’s adversary, has a penchant for human flesh and kidnaps small children. Vasilisa escapes from Baba Yaga’s clutches because she has her “mother’s blessing” to help her, embodied in a doll which advises her and performs the tasks set her by the witch. When Baba Yaga finds out that Vasilisa has been blessed, she sends her home to her stepmother and stepsisters unharmed and with the light they had sent her to fetch. The light given to Vasilisa by the witch is contained in a skull stuck on a pole. The blazing eyes of the skull stare straight at the stepmother and her daughters. “They tried to hide but everywhere they went the eyes followed them. By morning they were shrivelled to a cinder and only Vasilisa was left”. Vasilisa subsequently takes a room with an old woman and waits for her father to return from his business trip. With the doll’s help, she spins a quantity of fine linen thread, weaves a cloth “so delicate it could be drawn through the eye of a needle” and sews twelve shirts for the Tsar. The Tsar is delighted with her work and invites the seamstress to his palace, falls in love with her and asks her to marry him. When Vasilisa’s father returns he is overjoyed to hear of the good fortune that has befallen his daughter. He and the old woman, with whom Vasilisa has been living, come to live in the palace.
The trajectory of the story of “Vasilisa the Beautiful” is similar to that of Hansel and Gretel in a number of ways. Just as they did, Vasilisa must come to terms with the dualistic nature of the mother figure and develop a meaningful relationship with her father/the symbolic order. Her stepmother expels her from the house and sends her into the forest, just as Hansel’s and Gretel’s did, and her stepmother and the witch figure also epitomize the bad breast/mother figure. For Vasilisa the doll embodies the blessing or loving and nurturing aspects of the mother, while the stepmother/witch again represents the evil, cannibalistic characteristics. Vasilisa is not lured into Baba Yaga’s house as Hansel and Gretel are, however. Instead, she recognizes the threat the house and the witch represent but must still approach and comply with Baba Yaga’s commands, fulfilling the onerous tasks she sets. Thus, Vasilisa must face up to the deal with that which she fears just as Maggie Kilgour suggests the infant must do in relation to the breast. The step/mother is again dealt with through matricide but Vasilisa retains the best parts of the mother figure in the body of the doll, which she carries “in her pocket until the day she dies”. Arguably Vasilisa has reconciled with her ambivalent feelings toward her mother who is then reclaimed in the figure of the old woman. Again in this story, economic wealth is associated with the paternal and provides a happy ever after ending.
The emphasis on the devouring aspects of these wicked witches is significant. Baba Yaga’s sharp teeth and the bones and skulls with which her house is constructed are described in oral sadistic terms as Campbell suggests. Vasilisa must enter the witch’s domain through gates made of human legs, with human hands for bolts and a mouth with sharp teeth for a lock. Freud discussed the significance of the teeth (in dreams) and proposed that they represented the female genitals, the lower part of the body being transposed to the upper so that “it is ost likely that the mouth refers to the vagina and the rows of teeth which open and close to a phantasy about castrating vaginal teeth”. The gateway to Baba Yaga’s house suggests some transposition of the lower body to the upper and certainly emphasizes the incorporative aspects of the maternal mouths. The devouring vagina mouth with teeth — the vagina dentata — is a symbol for the castrating and incorporating aspects of the cannibalistic female.
Carolyn Davis, Voracious Children: Who Eats Whom In Children’s Literature
BABA YAGA IN JAPAN
Being a bit of a Japanophile, I can’t help but notice how popular the tale of Baba Yaga is in Japan. Here in the West, I grew up without ever hearing of such a folktale, but in Japan you might see its influence all over the place.
Some people think that Baba Yaga equals the Yubaba inSpirited Away. I can see how they got there — Yubaba does fly away, after turning into a creepy crow. There is a good and an evil version of her. Interestingly, the proto-Slavic word for grandma ‘baba’ may simply be coincidentally phonetically similar to the Japanese ‘Baba’, which also comes from the native Japanese word for grandmother/old woman (obaasan). It’s important to note that Baba is a derogatory term. I believe it’s derogatory in both the Japanese and in the Slavic. But Baba is not a loanword in Japanese. In fact, it’s listed here, in a list of native Japanese words often thought to be from abroad. It may have been this very phonetic correspondence that spurred Hayao Miyazaki’s imagination when it came to the creation of Yubaba. It’s a false cognate, but in Japanese the word baba also refers to an old hag. The worst thing you could call a woman is a kusobaba — a ‘shit crone’.
Mythological cannibals don’t seem to be all that common in other cultures. I expected the Wikipedia category to be much bigger in fact. Perhaps Russia and Japan are historically more similar than I’d thought?
“Stone City” is a short story by Annie Proulx, first published 1979, collected 20 years later in Heart Songs. Some of Proulx’s short stories are like compacted novels, and “Stone City” is one of those. The story of the humans is wrapped by the story of a fox, looking in from a slight distance. “Stone City” is a good example of what some literature academics call ‘delayed coding’.
For writers, “Stone City” makes a good mentor text:
If you’re building a story which is partly from the point of view of an animal. The fox is linked to a human character, Noreen Pineaud, who is described as like a fox. “Stone City” is therefore a good example of how to make use of animal imagery and, more importantly, how to link this imagery to the Anagnorisis part of a story.
It was an abandoned farm vine between two ridges, no roads in or out, only a faint track choked with viburnum and alder. The property, shaped like an eye, was bordered on the back by a stream. Popple and spruce had invaded the hay fields, and the broken limbs of the apple trees hung to the ground.
The buildings were gone, collapsed into cellar holes of rotting beams. Blackberry brambles boiled out of the crumbling foundations and across a fallen blue door that half-blocked a cellar hole.
A storyteller narrator, who tells a story within a story, jumping back and forth in chronology, with events linked thematically rather than by time.
Related to the storyteller voice, in this story Proulx is especially economical with language. Instead of saying, ‘A bell tinkled and Brittany came into the field to pick [the birds] up. Banger followed close behind. Then he said said…’ Proulx leaves out the ‘Banger followed close behind’ detail. We infer that if Banger has started talking, Banger is now on the scene.
Perhaps this is only noticeable because I recently read all the first and second volume of Grimm fairytales back to back, but there are subtle fairytale elements in “Stone City”. For instance, the way Banger’s dog sleeps behind the stove. This is where old people almost about to die spend their days in Grimm fairytales. Then of course there’s the Hansel and Gretel plot of finding an unexpected dwelling in the middle of the wilderness, the ‘sugarhouse’ of Banger is almost reminiscent of the gingerbread house. When Banger turns off ‘accidentally’ and takes the narrator home for dinner, was that really an accident, or on purpose? The nearby fox, circling the town, waiting for a chance to pounce/trick.
WHAT HAPPENS IN “STONE CITY”
The following provides a summary of what happens from Karen Lane Rood. I’ve emboldened the parts which give a clue as to the narration and structure:
“Stone City” examines several acts of revenge that have wider consequences than in “On the Antler,” as the narrator, a newcomer to Chopping County, gradually comes to understand the complex interrelationships of the people in the community. He learns that the abandoned farm everyone calls Stone City was once the property of the first settlers of the county — a “real old family, and a real bad family”. During the lifetimes of the current residents, old man Stone was known as the “meanest bastard” and his children shared a reputation for being wild and mean. One of those children, Floyd Stone, finally brought the wrath of the community on the whole Stone family when—after waiting for a seventy-three-car train to pass—he shot and killed the man standing on the caboose. Several hundred law men converged on Stone City and tore down a flimsy house to get Floyd and arrest him. Then the local starred and feathered the rest of the Stone men. Old man Stone retaliated by burning out Banger, one of the leaders of the mob, killing Banger’s wife and child in the process.
Floyd was eventually electrocuted, and by the time the narrator arrives in town, the Stones seem to exist only as a fearful memory.The narrator hears much of the Stones’ story from Banger, a talkative man known for his skills as a hunter. He lives alone with his much=loved hunting dog and seems to have been motivated for his part in the mob by an earlier act of violence. While hunting with the narrator in the abandoned Stone City, Banger explains that he used to hunt there as a child, and that once old man Stone chased him away “with number six birdshot. Still got the little pick scars acrost my back”.
When Banger’s dog is found dead in a trap set for foxes near Stone City, Banger blames old man Stone. In fact, the trap belongs to the son of Floyd Stone’s illegitimate son, a teenager who might have found the dog in time to save it if he had tended his trapline more diligently. After Banger moves away, the narrator discovers that Banger had bought Stone City for back taxes years earlier. Still, the narrator concludes, “The Stones owned it and they always would”. Proulx, however, suggests the vanity of any concept of human land ownership within the larger context of geological time. The story is punctuated with a series of vignettes about a fox whose range includes Stone City. Too smart to be caught in a trap, the fox survives to father another generation in a new den built under a cellar foundation in Stone City.
Understanding Annie Proulx by Karen Lane Rood
“Stone City” is one of very few stories that Proulx has written in the first person voice. Significantly, the narrator is an outsider who cannot comprehend the complexities of the life he has adopted.
Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News: A Reader’s Guide by Aliki Varvogli
In narratology terms, “Stone City” is a story within a story, within (or alongside) the story of the fox. Annie Proulx employs this method for other stories in this collection, including “On The Antler”, though in that case the narrator seems to be a long-time resident of Chopping County. This time she’s chosen a newcomer, which makes sense for this particular narrative. Both stories feature a storyteller character aside from the narrator storyteller themselves, but in the case of Stone City, the newcomer status of the narrator allows for realistic revelations which delve into the dark underbelly of the community. When the narrator is a newcomer to an arena, this allows the reader to sit on the shoulder of the narrator and make discoveries in a simulation of real time.
Metadiegetic (Level 1): The story of the fox who finds a new home.
Diegetic (Level 0): Without any awareness of the omniscient fox, the narrator moves to Chopping County and gradually comes to understand the complex interrelationships of the people in the community. A narrator who exists — in full or in part — on a different story level from the other characters is more commonly known as a ‘storyteller’. This narrator will tell us the story of Banger, who tells us the story of Stone City…
Hypodiegetic (Level -1): Refers to the embedded narrative in which Banger tells the narrator (and us) the history of Stone City. Any character who produces a further narrative within a narrative is a hypodiegetic narrator. Banger is the hypodiegetic narrator.
OTHER STORYTELLING TECHNIQUES
“Stone City” is one of very few stories that Proulx has written in the first person voice. Significantly, the narrator is an outsider who cannot comprehend the complexities of the life he has adopted. As in The Shipping News, family secrets and hidden traumas emerge only gradually, so that the truth is revealed to the narrator in fragments, which he has to piece together. In that respect, the outsider may also be seen as an image of the reader, to whom Proulx assigns a great responsibility. Because these stories, as well as Proulx’s novels, do not rely on a strong plot, the reader has to be on her guard at all times, since what appears to be a descriptive passage, for example, may turn out to be the key to a mystery that unfolds as the story progresses. At the same time, the reader cannot know which of the story’s elements will turn out to be clues, nor is it certain that all mysteries will be solved by the end.
Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News: A Reader’s Guide by Aliki Varvogli
In writing terminology, Annie Proulx is using the techniques of foreshadowing and a take on the good ole red-herring. By giving us extra descriptive information she is lulling us into enjoyment of the language. I have to read her stories at least twice before I understand what’s going on — she tricks me into enjoying the descriptions, and then I’m surprised. I have to go back and check why. This mirrors the experience of the narrator, who has come into the community, probably attracted to the landscape, and only afterwards thinks, oh hang on, something’s not right here and why did I not pick it up?
In order to get away with this you really do have to be a master of the descriptive passage. I feel this is Proulx’s greatest strength.
But scholars have pointed out that Proulx’s exact method of foreshadowing takes a specific form. They call it…
In Heart Songs Proulx also introduces a technique that she has used to great effect in most of her writing. She very often presents the readers with the effect long before she reveals the cause, so that various elements in each story appear inexplicable until the moment of revelation. A similar technique was used to great effect by Joseph Conrad in Heart of Darkness, and following Conrad scholar Ian Watt. I will be referring to it as “delayed decoding”. Delayed decoding is a realistic narrative device to the extent that it mirrors the way in which we may be aware of things whose causes we have yet to discover. As such, it creates both suspense and a sense of bewilderment when used in narrative. At the same time, however, it is also an indication of the fact that the author has control over her creation, and chooses to manipulate her material in such a way as to suggest that characters’ lives are unfolding in front of our eyes, when the truth is that their fate had been decided before the author began to write. Delayed decoding may assert the author’s power, but…it also allows the reader to interpret the text more freely.
Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News: A Reader’s Guide by Aliki Varvogli
Stories employing this technique do require more work from the reader. When the reader is invited to ‘interpret the text more freely’, we are invited to participate in the creation of the story ourselves. We need to ask ourselves:
Whose truth is true here, in the world of this story?
How do I want it to end?
But how would it realistically end?
Annie Proulx has been called a ‘fatalistic’ writer. She gives us the impression that once a setting is set in place and peopled with characters, their lives are set in motion and there’s no changing their path. I believe this particular technique is what gives us that sense of fatalism, or at least contributes to it.
STORY STRUCTURE OF “STONE CITY”
There are three different main characters in this story:
The viewpoint character, also the unnamed narrator. Most of what we know of the viewpoint character we deduce by the way they notice things — as usual (though first person narration is not usual for Proulx), we have an ambiguously gendered (though masculine sounding) character with enough world-weariness to be middle-aged or older. He likes to go hunting, though is entirely self-taught. His aim is to get a local to show him. In this regard, this could be the character of Earl in “The Unclouded Day“. (But these stories are not obviously interlinked, so I’m not arguing that, exactly.)
Banger, a local personality who tells the story of yet another character, Old Man Stone.
Banger was about fifty, a heavy man, all suet and mouth. At first I thought he was that stock character who remembered everybody’s first name, shouting “Har ya! How the hell ya doing’?” to people he’d seen only an hour before, giving them a slap on the back or a punch on the arm—swaggering gestures in school, but obnoxious in a middle-aged man. I saw him downtown, talking to anybody who would listen, while he left his hardware store to the attentions of a slouchy kid who could never find anything on the jumbled shelves.
We, along with the narrator, soon learn that Banger has a significant ghost — “His place burned down and the wife and kid was fired right up in it. He got nothing left but his dog and the goddamn hardware store his old man left him and which he was never suited to.”
Old Man Stone, the main character of the hypodiegetic level.
Next question: Who undergoes the character arc? Who get the anagnorisis? That’s who I focus on here.
To hunt — that’s the conscious desire. Underneath — as judged by the reader given the information — he sees through pretensions of rural toughness but at the same time he is susceptible to the same himself. He wants to be part of this world. Ideally he wants a hunting companion to feel more at home in this world, but he has trouble finding a companion when he makes an out-of-sorts comment about the local hunting expert with the sorry backstory.
Narrator tries to find a companion, can’t. Goes hunting by himself. Once shot, he can’t find his bird, which puts him off that part of the woods. So he finds a new hunting area, which happens to be where the local hunting expert also hunts.
There is a big struggle scene in the story-within-a-story, in which Banger describes the memory provoked by finding the knife. The state police turn up for the arrest of Floyd Stone ‘for the murder of whoever he was’. (To Banger and the story, the victim is not important.)
The narrator’s own big struggle is similar to the big struggle scene in another story from the same collection, “In The Pit” — one man goes to another man’s abode and accuses him of something he hasn’t done.
Even to the bastard descendants the Stones were predators. They could not help it any more than Banger, fluttering in suspicious apprehension, could help being their victims.
There’s a fatalistic outlook to that epiphany. The epiphany itself turns humans into animals — hunted and preyed, and explains why Proulx turned a human character into a fox/chicken (alternately — with a fox face and a feather stuck to her cheek). Humans live like animals out here, where everything is wild and dangerous.
I heard that Banger moved to Florida, to Arizona, to California, all earthly paradises to Chopping County.
In the spring I sold my house to a retired couple…
There’s nothing in Chopping County for Banger now, and the narrator, having immersed himself in Banger’s narrative, feels the same.
But the story closes as it opens, with the fox. The fox has taken up residence inside Banger’s abandoned sugarhouse with the distinctive blue door. This underscores the Anagnorisis of the narrator (that humans are animals).